Michigan's constitutional guarantees of direct democracy are being abused. It's hard not to feel that way when at least $150 million in special-interest money this year was poured into five proposed constitutional amendments designed to reward their big-spending sponsors, not citizens, and a sixth proposition that was forced on the ballot by unions opposing Gov. Rick Snyder's emergency manager law.
It's time to consider reforms that can swing us back toward the intent of those who rewrote the Michigan Constitution in 1963. They envisioned an infrequently used way for citizens to repair legislative miscues or fix problems that have gone unresolved for years, not an avenue for larding up the state constitution with self-serving amendments that hinder good government.
We've already made one suggestion: Outlaw payments for petition signatures. That change would do more than any other to restore a grassroots spirit to the process Michiganians use to amend the constitution or to seek statutes such as Michigan's 1976 bottle deposit law. It could save us from facing California-style bed-sheet ballots in every major election.
Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, has a bill that would require a bold-faced listing of sponsors' names on paid-circulation petitions. While a good thought, that doesn't go far enough.
Allowing petition circulating firms to shell out $3, $5, $6 per signature - standard practice nowadays - does nothing to give most of us added access to the ballot. But it does make it easier for well-heeled special interests, or a billionaire like Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, to try to buy their own pieces of our constitution.
Lawmakers and Snyder already have made one key change. From now on, petitions must be cleared through the state elections department and Board of State Canvassers before they are circulated. That should make it easier for citizens to understand what they're being asked to sign. It should avert battles over wording and technical formatting of petitions after hundreds of thousands of signatures have been obtained.
Additional steps should lead to more deliberative and orderly petition procedures. Here's a look at other measures lawmakers should consider. Broader circulation: Require that ballot question petitions affecting all Michiganians are circulated throughout the state. Michigan could require a limited number of signatures be collected from each of Michigan's Congressional districts. That would go far toward preventing proponents from getting all their signatures in friendly territory, such as areas with heavy concentrations of union workers, or staunch conservatives.
Better timetable: Petitioners must submit their signatures 120 days before the election if a constitutional amendment is sought, and 160 days beforehand if a new statute is desired. That lead time has to be used more effectively. The makeup of the Board of State Canvassers - two Republicans, two Democrats - makes gridlock automatic. Tie votes inevitably lead to court battles. Empower the Secretary of State, an elected official, to cast tie-breaking votes.
More clarity: The Board of Canvassers' role in deciding if proposals are ballot-eligible is open-ended. Members lock horns over constitutional and legal issues they're ill-equipped to resolve.
They should authenticate petitions as to the number of signatures, wording and formatting. It should be left to the courts to determine if proposals meet constitutional tests. Hotly contested propositions usually end up before the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, anyway.
But the time for such changes is not the hectic two-week lame duck legislative session coming up in early December.
There's plenty of unfinished business to fill up the schedule during that time. Instead, the new Legislature should arrive in Lansing in January with election reform high on its priority list.