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Do you have a legal right to have your signature counted on a petition?

Do you have a right to have your name counted when you sign a petition? Or, can it be thrown out on a technicality that has nothing to do with you?

There are two recent instances in Michigan where, although signatures on a petition were collected, it’s unclear whether those signatures will actually be counted.

“This is a clear violation of the constitutional rights of the people who signed these petitions. Three hundred and eighty thousand Michigan citizens want to repeal prevailing wage,” says Jeff Wiggins with the group Protecting Michigan Taxpayers (PMT). PMT wants to repeal the prevailing wage in Michigan.

The repeal of prevailing wage is a Republican priority pushed by non-union builders and business groups that would block state and local rules that require contractors to pay union-level wages on publicly financed construction projects.

PMT got signatures to try to get the question put in front of the Legislature. But the two Democrats on the Board of State Canvassers questioned whether it was OK for petition circulators - not the folks who signed the petition, but the ones asking for signatures - to list their residential addresses as places that were clearly not residential addresses, like addresses for churches, hotels and post office boxes.

The question is now before the Michigan Court of Appeals: whether or not thousands and thousands of signatures should not count because of an issue with the people who gathered the signatures.

Meanwhile, up north, Democrat Matt Morgan, who’s challenging Republican Congressman Jack Bergman in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District, is having a similar issue. Morgan’s campaign gathered signatures in order for him to get on the ballot.

But, instead of a street or rural delivery route, his campaign listed a PO box as his home address on his petitions. The Michigan Bureau of Elections says that’s not legal.

Morgan’s attorney says he will argue to a state elections board that the law is confusing and that the folks who signed the petition should have their voices heard.

“Registered voters have a right to sign these petitions, and they have a right to have their signatures counted,” elections attorney and former state Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer told It’s Just Politics.

Brewer says people have a constitutional right to band together with others who believe in a candidate, a cause, or a political party. “The right of association with a political party, very well established. The right to associate with other voters, people to advance political causes, that’s bedrock law in this country, and that’s what we’re talking about here.”

Petition signers don’t typically go to the trouble of checking whether a circulator or a candidate have filled out addresses in a way that’s copacetic with Michigan election rules.

So, we’ll see how this shakes out. At stake: can the state enforce these rules on candidates and circulators without violating the rights of voters who sign petitions?

Update, Friday, May 11 at 2:40 p.m.

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled in the prevailing wage case. The court did not address the issue of whether people who sign petitions have a right to have their names counted. The court ruled state law says there are remedies other than throwing out a petition if a circulator doesn’t provide an accurate residential address. The court says state law doesn’t offer that as an option. But a circulator who lies about a residential address can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Either way, the court ordered the Board of State Canvassers to count the signatures, certify the petitions, and send the question to the Legislature.

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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