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Groups trying to ban fracking, legalize marijuana, and shut down Line 5 all face the same challenge

The Michigan Supreme Court this week said “not yet” to a group trying to stop fracking in Michigan.

The group, The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan, is now on its third attempt to get a question on the ballot to ban the controversial process used to drill hard-to-reach pockets of natural gas.

The group says the problem is that the state keeps stacking the deck, making it too hard for grassroots groups trying to put a question before voters. Their specific gripe: The 180-day window for gathering signatures, which we've talked about before on It's Just Politics.

If you want to create or change a law in Michigan - without the state legislature - you can put a question on the ballot for voters to decide. But, in order for the question to appear on the ballot, you’ve got to get enough signatures within a 180-day period.

Gathering enough signatures in that period of time is a heavy lift so groups that want to try and initiate laws like this almost always have to hire professional signature-gathering firms. Which means raising millions of dollars to pay the people gathering signatures.

And that means the ballot process pretty much belongs to business groups, unions, and other deep-pocketed institutions.

Republicans tried to double down on the 180-day rulelast year with a law signed by Governor Rick Snyder. It was backed by business groups who were very opposed to the anti-fracking ballot drive.

This past week, the Michigan Supreme Court said “no” to the committee’s legal challenge to the 180-rule. But not because they said the law is OK. Rather, they said it’s not time.

The way lawsuits work is you have to show you’ve suffered actual harm before you can sue.

The court is basically saying, ‘go ahead and collect your signatures, turn them in, and then when you get turned down because you weren’t able to do it within 180-days, then you can sue.’

“What we’re going to do is collect all the signatures, file a new lawsuit, and that’s exactly what they’re telling us to do, so that’s what we’ll do,” LuAnn Kozma with The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan told us.

The group wants the state to count all the signatures they’ve gathered since May of 2015 because they say the framers of Michigan’s 1963 constitution never envisioned such tight restrictions around ballot drives.

And, they’ve got some backup from Jeff Hank. Hank is a lawyer who is working with other petition campaigns also trying to gather signatures, including the effort to legalize marijuana in Michigan and another to shut down Line 5, the energy pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

Hank agrees that the 180-day rule is simply not enough time to gather signatures, “this is intended to be difficult, but not almost impossible,” he told us.

So, we could see lawsuits over the 180-day rule this fall with arguments centering on the specific language of the state constitution. We could also see federal First Amendment arguments saying that the time limit is an undue burden on ballot access.

But the five-decade old constitutional language on petition drives is mushy enough that it’s always been open to reinterpretation. These ballot campaign washouts could actually change how Michigan handles petition drives well into the future.

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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