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Ballot petition bills expected to move from committee

Michigan bills expected to move from the House Elections Committee Tuesday could change how candidates and proposals make the ballot.

One difference would be the standard that the Michigan Board of State Canvassers would use to decide if a campaign’s filing paperwork was in order.

Under the current system, nominating petitions and ballot proposals must be strictly formatted to follow the letter of the law. The legislation instead proposes allowing campaigns to appear on the ballot as long as their forms substantially comply.

Representative Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing) chairs the House Elections Committee. She said that change would prevent people from losing ballot access because of technicalities.

“We won’t have as many gotcha moments where, if the font is like slightly the wrong size or a period is in the wrong place or something, that petitions would be disqualified,” Tsernoglou said.

The Board of State Canvassers, whose meetings sometimes involve elections lawyers arguing about those small details, has discussed moving away from a policy of strict compliance to substantive compliance as a way of cutting down on the minutia.

But some concerns have come up that the change could create too much grey area.

Republican board member Tony Daunt said the Board of State Canvassers already uses some discretion at times.

“I’m hesitant to add to that by moving to a substantial compliance because I think it’s evident as you watch these meetings that, if there’s a window of opportunity for people to challenge or state a case for them to be on the ballot or kick somebody off of the ballot, practitioners are going to avail themselves of it,” Daunt told reporters in late May.

Aside from changing the review standard, the legislation expected to advance to the House floor Tuesday would codify the practice of using statistical random sampling to determine if a campaign turned in enough signatures to make the ballot.

Tsernoglou said using a random sample to check the validity of submitted signatures allows election officials to do their work more effectively.

“We have people that want to speak out and have their voices heard through the petition process. So, we need to ensure that we have the resources available to look at those petitions and to get them on the ballot. This is really the best way to do that,” she said.

Prior to this election cycle, officials checked signatures by reviewing every sheet for any obvious errors and then went through any challenges to the remaining signatures.

The Board of State Canvassers switched to the new sampling method this in November 2023.

The rest of the package deals with deadlines, other requirements from the Board of State Canvassers, and cleaning up language in state election law that courts have declared unconstitutional.

Tsernoglou said she doesn’t expect a policy proposal to give ballot question campaigns more time to collect signatures, to move forward at this time.

The proposal, House Joint Resolution P, would put a proposed constitutional amendment to allow for the new time line to go before voters this fall.

Tsernoglou said talks over how to handle signature gathering timelines are ongoing.