Ballot box politics: Conflicts of interest for Michigan's Board of State Canvassers

Apr 13, 2012

Playing politics with the ballot: conflicts of interest for Michigan's Board of State Canvassers

A second potential conflict of interest has appeared on the Board of State Canvassers. That’s the bipartisan state panel that approves petitions and decides whether questions will go on the statewide ballot.

In both cases, the panel members have business or employment interests in the issues put in front of them. They’re big, too, and controversial – a potential challenge to Michigan’s emergency manager law and a preemptive strike at “right-to-work” legislation.

The Board of State Canvassers is very partisan – by design. The state Republican and Democratic parties each get to nominate people to be on the panel. The governor has to choose from the nominees, two from each party. It takes the votes of at least three of the four to get anything done.
Julie Matuzak is a Democrat who chairs the board.

“It is intended that those four people represent the world view of their party,” said Matuzak. “They are partisan activists. That’s the whole point of being on here. What makes the system fair is it takes three votes on the board of canvassers to do anything.”

Last month, the Board of Canvassers gave its O-K for a petition drive to go forward that would put a question on the ballot to forestall a right-to-work law in Michigan and roll back some Republican legislation that restricts union organizing and fundraising.
The approval only means the form of the petition meets all the technical requirements in state law. That’s basically size and placement of the type.

One of the votes to allow the Protect Our Jobs petition drive to go forward was Matuzak’s. But she never disclosed that part of her regular, full-time job is to get that very question on the ballot. Matuzak is the political coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers of Michigan. And her job includes getting A-F-T members to sign and circulate the petitions. But Matuzak says she sees no problem with that.

“In my case, my union, along with every other union in the state is supporting the Protect Our Jobs petition drive and trying to get our members to sign it,” she said. “ I do many other things for the union, as well, but that is clearly one of the things that I do. Again, it’s designed to have two members of each of the major political parties on here and again, it requires three votes to do anything.”

A Republican on the board also has an interest in a pending matter before it. Jeff Timmer is a partner in Sterling Corporation, a political firm that works for Republicans and conservative causes. One of Sterling’s clients – one that even shares its business address – is Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility. It’s a ballot campaign committee that has filed five separate technical challenges to the petition to put a referendum on Michigan’s emergency manager law on the ballot.

Hundreds of thousands of voters signed the petitions.

Jeff Timmer refused requests to be interviewed until after the next meeting of the board of canvassers when  -- unless he recuses himself -- Timmer will have to decide whether to vote for or against a client.

“It would be nice not to have people like that around this table.” Said John Chamberlin, a professor of ethics and political science at the University of Michigan. He’s talking about both Timmer and Matuzak.

“It’s an inherent conflict of interest when somebody deciding whether something will go forward in the political realm has an interest in the outcome, either a financial interest or a political interest that is a deeper interest then they are a Democrat or a Republican,” he said.

Chamberlain acknowledges the prospect of losing one or more people on a four-person board on any particular question does pose a dilemma:

“On a committee this size, to have somebody recuse themselves because their fingerprints are on the issue at hand is a problem. If it were a 12-person body, it might not be.”

Changing the structure of the Board of State Canvassers would require amending the state constitution. By the way, if that were done by petition drive, the issue would go before the canvassers. Chamberlin says another solution would be for political parties and the governor’s office to be more careful (or less cynical) about who gets named to the board.