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Consequence of low voter turnout: It’ll now be easier to get a question on the ballot

Michigan had the lowest turnout in a Governor’s race this year since the John Engler-Geoffrey Fieger face-off of 1998. And, while a lot of Republicans sat out this year, it was mostly Democrats who stayed home in droves on Election Day.

So, despite the low turnout, conservatives can rejoice because Republicans will remain in control in Lansing for at least the next two years. But progressives can, perhaps, find some solace in the fact that getting initiatives and challenges on the ballot will be easier than it has been in 16 years.

(Shout-out to the Lansing political consulting firm Sterling Corporation and its attorney Bob LaBrandt for being the first to point this out.)

Proposals are by and large put on the ballot by petition drives. (The Legislature can also put questions on the ballot.)

The number of signatures required to get a petition on the ballot is based on the number of people who voted in the previous election for governor. So, fewer voters in 2014 means fewer signatures needed to get on the ballot in 2016.
There are three types of petition drives in Michigan. First, an amendment to the state constitution requires signatures equal to 10 percent of the people who voted in the governor’s race. That number was 322,609. Now, at 315,184, the threshold has dropped by 7,425 signatures.

Voter-initiated laws require signatures equal to 8 percent of the vote for governor. That number is now reduced by 5,941. And, if you think this is just an academic exercise, consider this: Just this year, a proposal to enact a voter-initiated law to increase the state’s minimum fell about 3,900 signatures short.

But, thanks to low voter turnout, if those petitions had been turned in next year, the minimum wage question would make the 2016 ballot.

So, it will now be easier to challenge what Governor Snyder and the Republican controlled Legislature do using ballot questions and the referendum process.

Of course, we’ll be watching to see how often in the coming session lawmakers return to using appropriations as a mechanism to make their work referendum-proof at the ballot box.

Remember legislative re-districting, the second emergency manager, and extending the income tax to pensions? All those were referendum-proofed by the GOP by adding spending provisions that, under the Michigan Constitution, makes them immune to referendum challenges.

Referenda, by the way, require signatures equal to 5 percent of the vote for governor. That’s now easier by 3,713 signatures.

So what might we see headed to the 2016 ballot? There’s fracking, to start with. The ballot drive to outlaw the controversial drilling procedure came up short the last time around.

We could also see either same-sex marriage or LGBT civil rights on the ballot. We’re watching the Legislature’s “lame duck” session and the U.S. Supreme Court on those two questions. Depending on how those shake out, either or both could wind up on the 2016 ballot.

And let’s not forget the wolf-hunting controversy. The Legislature passed two laws to allow wolf hunting in the Upper Peninsula, and wolf-hunting opponents ran two petition drives to block them with referenda. Both laws were, in fact, rejected by voters, but there is another law enacted via a (wait for it…) petition drive -- that also circumvented a new referendum by putting in a $1 million appropriation.

The wolf hunting foes are focused right now on their legal strategy -- a federal lawsuit to get the gray wolf re-listed as an endangered species, and a yet-to-be filed court challenge to the initiated law.

But if those fail, they could try again to pass a new law (the appropriation does not block an initiated law) and the whole thing could go back to the ballot since it’s easier now than it has been since 1999.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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