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LGBTQ rights ballot initiative organizer sues state election officials

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The Fair and Equal Michigan campaign filed suitTuesday in state court seeking an injunction that would reduce the number of signatures required and extend the deadline for the petition drive to amend the state's civil rights law

The group alleges it is impossible to collect the 340,042 signatures required by state law by May 27 due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

The group is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would add anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people to Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. The law already prohibits discrimination based on criteria like sex, religion, race, age, family status, and weight.  

If enacted, the proposed initiated law would define "sex" as including gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression.

"The Stay-at-Home orders, while important to public safety, shut down all traditional canvassing right when our campaign was nearing peak operational capacity - which is about 50,000 signatures plus per week," said Trevor Thomas, co-chair and president of Fair and Equal Michigan.

Thomas said subsequent efforts to collect signatures by mail and electronically were far less successful. He said collecting signatures electronically proved challenging in part because of higher costs associated with quickly rolling out a new system and because of some voters' reluctance to provide private information online.  

According to Thomas, as of Sunday, Fair and Equal Michigan had collected about 178,000 signatures, both paper and electronic, out of the roughly 340,000 needed.

The lawsuit is asking the court to reduce the signature requirement to about 127,500 signatures. That's 35.7% of the total currently required. The rationale is that due to COVID-19, the campaign was only able to canvas for signatures for 35.7% of the time allowed under state law.

The lawsuit also asks the court to extend the deadline for submitting signatures from May 27 to July 13, 2020.

"The voters, when they approved the state constitution, did specifically reserve the right to initiate laws," said Steven Liedel, a lawyer representing Fair and Equal Michigan in the lawsuit. "And that's the constitutional right we're seeking recognition of by the Court of Claims."

If the petition drive is successful, the citizen-initiated bill would go to the Michigan legislature. If the legislature does not pass it, it would go to the voters in November.

The complaint names Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Elections Director Jonathan Brater, and the Board of State Canvassers as defendants. 

A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of State said they have not reviewed the complaint and do not have a comment at this time.

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Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.
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