The Michigan Bureau of Elections recently released a report blocking Fair and Equal Michigan from moving forward on its first-ever LGBTQ rights bill, despite acknowledging at least six errors in its review of citizen signatures.
We oppose the Bureau's handling of this review, which has implications far beyond our fight for equal rights. This moment calls for public engagement, and we want our supporters and people throughout Michigan to understand what is at stake.
The implications of the Bureau of Election's recent actions are significant for any future petition issue – Republican, Democrat or Independent.
Rooted in fairness
Fairness is at the heart of how we treat one another, especially when it comes to the availability of basic government services, employment, housing or education. For generations, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have been treated differently – without the same rights as everyone else under the law.
In November of 2019, Jey'nce Poindexter was driving to the store when she received a call from citizens with an idea: Let's start a petition to finally pass Michigan's first LGBTQ+ rights law. For her, it was a resounding yes: "We've lost too many," she said, referring to the nearly dozen trans women of color who had been lost to murder, targeted for their identities. In fact, when Jey'nce got the call, she was on her way to purchase memorial plaques, in bulk, for the families of the fallen.
Our grassroots, citizen campaign set out to create good public policy for Michigan – choosing the initiative petition to introduce a citizens' bill. We believe there is more that brings us together than forces us apart. This is why our initiative includes Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Our uniting statement: Every Michigander should have an equal chance to succeed.
The Bureau's handling of our petition
Under Michigan's Constitution, "all political power is inherent in the people" of the State of Michigan. This is significant as it offers citizens the ability to petition and make laws. And for citizen petitions, the government should "facilitate rather than hamper the exercise by the people of these reserved rights." Put simply: No one cannot hinder, obstruct or otherwise get in the way of a citizen petition.
From the beginning, when we filed our initiative, the State's informal process, established in the 1970s, began to change on the fly. The Bureau opted to re-write the language of our citizens' bill rather than discussing changes with us, as was customary. And as Fair and Equal collected its 100,000th signature, we asked the Bureau for guidance after government issued quarantines due to the pandemic. We received no response.
We took our case to court, where the Bureau vigorously objected to any guidance or assistance for Fair and Equal, writing in a public brief that the burden of the health orders on citizens was "not severe under the circumstances." Further, the Bureau argued, the Governor's March 10, 2020 Declaration of Emergency "by no means required or even suggested that [Fair and Equal] must suspend their signature collection efforts." By that point, two of Fair and Equal's leadership co-chairs had become increasingly sick and later tested positive for COVID.
A judge agreed with Fair and Equal's arguments and extended the petition timeline. Accordingly, Fair and Equal submitted 483,461 signatures on October 13, 2020 — a figure that represents a safety net of 143,421 extra signatures.
What's a "valid signature"?
In 2012, Michigan lawmakers amended the Administrative Procedures Act of 1969 to remove ambiguity and protect against midstream changes at the hands of the Bureau. The Legislature added language requiring the Bureau to create administrative rules aimed at establishing uniform standards for signature validation.
Put simply, the Bureau was tasked with creating a transparent set of rules and making them public so that citizens can petition successfully. Unfortunately, the Bureau – under multiple Administrations – never took action and remains in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act today.
Why does this matter? Because without notice, at 4 p.m. on July 8, the informal process used since the 1970s changed on the fly — again. The Bureau, without holding any discussions with the campaign or returning our calls, announced our petition would not move forward.
The Bureau opted for a new standard to not even talk to the campaign before the report was issued. Their rationale? Not enough valid signatures. Their evidence? A sloppy report that we now know, as conceded by the Bureau, was filled with errors.
The Bureau's report
Reporters and media outlets knew of Fair and Equal's obituary, written by the Bureau, before our own team. When we were finally informed, the Bureau provided 16 business hours to respond.
The Bureau, according to their own procedures, prefers to not check every signature. Instead, in the 1970s, they chose a sampling method based on examining as few as 500 and up to 4,000 signatures (which it has done for other campaigns). With no apparent rationale, the Bureau chose to review just 502. Each sampled signature equated to around 1,000 signatures. Essentially, the smaller the sample, the more risk to Fair and Equal.
For petition sheet 14980, our team of experts found no errors. The Bureau found it was invalid based on a category called "Miscellaneous." In all, 19 signatures, representing 19,000 signatures in total, were invalidated with no rationale.
Under the Bureau rules, Fair and Equal had no ability to adequately respond to allegations of invalidity, which included several questionable decisions. For example, the Bureau invalidated one petition sheet because the signer wrote: "Detroit, MI, Wayne 48203" and the Bureau argued the signer could have meant another place that was not Wayne County, such as Wayne City, MI. For Petition Sheet 32143, they wrote the date 8/12/2020, but because the final "0," while completely closed, was slanted with a trail from the pen, the Report invalided it, apparently, because they claim it could be read as 2026.
The Bureau's lack of standards and the record-breaking delay to review our signatures provided an extraordinary opportunity for anti-equality forces. Challengers typically have about six weeks to complete this review — our challenger was given nearly 10 months.
A Dangerous precedent
The Bureau, through sampling and its report, has effectively thrown out close to 75,000 signatures for reasons to which we take exception. This nightmare scenario is why the Legislature mandated that there be written rules, including uniform standards, in place.
We believe this ignores the "facilitate rather than hamper" requirement under state law and sets a dangerous precedent. Opposing this Bureau Report is not something we take lightly. We are doing so with the deepest respect and love for our Constitution and our great state.
We are challenging the Bureau's flagrant violations of the Administrative Procedures Act and asserting the Bureau is setting a dangerous precedent in hampering, not facilitating, a citizen petition review as set forth in our Constitution. You can join us at FairAndEqualMichigan.com and contribute to our legal fund.
For us, we're not just another petition campaign. This is our humanity.
— The Co-Chairs of Fair and Equal Michigan: Dr Mira Jordan, Jey'nce Poindexter, Brandon Dillion and Trevor Thomas