Commentary
10:30 am
Thu August 23, 2012

Commentary: Ballot proposal mania

Depending on what the courts decide, Michigan voters in November could be deciding anywhere from one to six ballot proposals, some of which would radically alter the way things work.

Why is there so much uncertainty about what we are going to be voting on, barely two months before the election? The process used to be straightforward. Groups who wanted to put something on the ballot collected signatures. The state then checked to see if they had enough legitimate ones to qualify.

If they did, they were on; if not, they weren‘t. But nowadays, in our hyperpolarized world, verifying the signatures is just the start.

After that, the lawsuits begin, whether or not the Board of State Canvassers agrees to put the issues on the ballot. So far, the courts have ruled that the proposal to repeal the emergency manager law should be on the ballot. But five more are in the pipeline.

All are expected to be challenged, and two of them were bankrolled heavily by Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

One of these would require a statewide vote of the taxpayers on any bridge that used taxpayer dollars. The second would require a two-thirds super majority vote of the legislature to raise any taxes.

The Moroun family has spent millions to promote these proposals and to pay people to collect signatures. Their motive is clear: They are owners of a monopoly, and want to prevent another bridge from being built across the Detroit River.

There’s no doubt that those behind both proposals collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But the groups trying to keep these two proposals have a number of arguments.

They say that both proposals failed to inform voters of the relevant sections of the Michigan Constitution that they would  change. Legally, constitutional amendments are supposed to do that. A new group called Taxpayers Against Monopolies argues that the wording in the bridge proposal is sloppy and over broad, and could have unwelcome unintended consequences.  John Pirich, an attorney specializing in constitutional law, says the Moroun amendment could apply to any bridge project in Michigan, even one over a local country stream.  And opponents of both proposals argue that voters didn’t understand what they were signing.

Well, I know something about that last argument. I go up north many weekends in the summer, and I stop at a lot of rest areas, most of which had paid canvassers gathering signatures. I listened to them talk to voters, and my significant other interviewed some of them.

And I can tell you they weren’t just misleading people, they flat out lied to them. One canvasser told Elizabeth that the governor supported the bridge amendment. I heard another tell a voter the tax proposal would apply to Congress too, and that it wouldn’t apply if there was a real emergency. Others repeated the lie that the governor wanted to raise our taxes to pay for the new bridge.

If it were up to me, that would be enough to keep these proposals off the ballot. But beyond that, it’s clear that our system of putting proposals on the ballot isn’t working. The next constitutional amendment I’d like to see would be one that somehow fixed this.