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It’s not just individuals who have had to make drastic adjustments because of the COVID-19 outbreak. From business to government, innovations like working from home on a widescale basis and the temporary suspension of the Open Meetings Act are defining this uncharted territory in Michigan. And not only that, but for this election cycle, candidates are tasked with finding creative alternatives to in-person contact, just as signature-collectors for ballot campaigns scramble for ways to fulfill their mission without leaving home. With all of the above in mind, Between The Lines checked in with Fair and Equal Michigan to learn what’s next for the campaign to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. It intends to put the issue before voters in November if the Michigan Legislature doesn’t adopt the measure once the 340,000-plus valid voter signatures are collected by the May deadline.
On March 9, Fair and Equal Michigan held a fundraiser on the same day president Trevor Thomas reported in a statement that, “In just five weeks, we’ve scaled from zero to 628 fully-trained volunteers along with a 145-person paid field team that led to our 100,000th signature collected. With broad support across the state our effort continues to be on time, on budget and at signature quality.”
A large signature collection effort took place at polling locations across the state the following day during the primary election. That day, March 10, the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Michigan.
As the days unfolded and the coronavirus rapidly spread across the state, the state of Michigan and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines changed — and continue to change — day by day. A March 13 statement on the Fair and Equal Michigan website spoke of new precautions being taken: employees observing proper hygiene and those experiencing symptoms being asked to stay home. Soon, however, they transitioned to a canvass-by-mail strategy:
“In response to COVID-19, Fair and Equal Michigan assembled its team of advisers and is currently piloting several initiatives to continue garnering signatures by mail while keeping our communities safe,” said Thomas, in a statement. “The initiatives include: social posts, coordinating with our allies, volunteer calls and automated direct-dials to targeted registered voters to ask if they’d like a petition by mail. We are closely monitoring guidance from the State of Michigan to help support the health of our employees, volunteer network and our public supporters — now at more than 150,000 Michiganders.”
Other Campaigns, Other Responses
Other ballot campaigns in Michigan are responding in their own ways in the face of the pandemic. Fair Tax Michigan, the campaign for a graduated income tax, has called upon House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Leader Mike Shirkey to allow online petition gathering. A response to their March 19 request has not been forthcoming.
Close Lansing Loopholes, the campaign to curb lobbying, folded as of March 20. A statement on their Facebook page indicates they will gear up for another campaign in 2022, “but during this time of national crisis, we are more focused on making sure everyone heeds advice from infectious disease experts and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and stays home.”
A significant distinction between Fair and Equal Michigan and this campaign is that Close Lansing Loopholes sought to amend the Michigan Constitution and therefore faced a higher threshold of needed signatures.
In New York, which has been especially hard-hit by the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made significant modifications to ease election rules. For example, the number of signatures required for ballot campaigns has been reduced to just 30 percent of those usually required by law. Between The Lines asked Thomas what avenues Fair and Equal Michigan was considering at this time.
“We’re working with our legal counsel and campaign team to evaluate all options,” Thomas replied via email. “Our current strategy is what’s feasible right now, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
He also said they continue to use both volunteers and paid staff.
Now, because of the statewide shelter-in-place order announced by Gov. Whitmer that went into effect March 24, it remains to be seen whether stay-at-home signature collection will enable the campaign to collect the required signatures within the next two months. However, Thomas seemed undeterred. He ended with a call to action to collect more than 200,000 signatures within the next two months. That number reflects the fact that the coalition will need to turn in well over the required 340,047 signatures to ensure a sufficient number are valid.
“Fortunately, the campaign surpassed 100,000 signatures back on March 9th but we still have work to do and need everyone to sign up on the website to participate in the mail-in signature collection effort to make sure our equal rights bill has the 340,000+ signatures required to go in front of the legislature.”