Campaigns | Dan Calabrese | Local Politics | Politics | State Politics

Michigan barely ducks minimum wage fiasco

There are sensible ways to determine wage levels. Then there are idiotic ways to do it. Continue in this direction, way to the furthest conceivable expanses of the insanity spectrum, and eventually you will arrive at the way “Raise Michigan” almost succeeded at forcing everyone to do it.

That would be this: Send hired propagandists armed with talking points to fan out across the state, imploring people to sign their names if they think folks deserve more money.

Then, spend big bucks promoting “yes” votes in an election that gives people who will never be parties to the employment relationships in question a vote equal to those who will be forced to fork over the cash.

Then, having won, kick back and rest secure in the knowledge that this nonsense is now Michigan law.

And they almost pulled it off, because Michigan’s ballot initiative process makes it that easy.

The only reason state voters won’t be considering a $10.10 minimum wage come November is that the professional signature-gathering company that does this for a living appears to have loaded up the petitions with so many duplicate signatures that, statistically, there is no way they got to the required 258,088 registered voters legitimately.

As Gary Heinlein of The News reported last week:

Afterward, state elections Director Chris Thomas said the staff agreed that Raise Michigan had too few valid signatures. Opponents submitted a sampling that contained 48 duplicate signatures, he said, leading to a projection that the petitions were thousands short.

The board is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. Democrat Julie Matuzak objected to the late challenge and ultimately voted against rejecting the $10.10 ballot proposition.

The rest of the board agreed with a group called People Protecting Michigan Jobs that the petitions should be disqualified. Registered voters are allowed to sign petitions only once.

John Pirich, attorney for People Protecting Michigan Jobs, said the petitions are at least 4,000 signatures short, according to a validation formula used by elections officials. A sampling determines the number of valid and invalid signatures rather than a review of all of the more than 300,000 turned in.

If this sounds like a technicality, that makes it perfect. The process proscribed by the state constitution to allow such ballot initiative gambits in the first place is one big technicality, and it needs to be changed before someone is successful in abusing it to push through rot like this — or worse.

This is not a process that sees well-informed, clear-headed citizens signing their names to measures they fully understand and deeply desire.

The people gathering the signatures are not earnest volunteers taking to the streets on behalf of causes they care about with all their hearts.

In order to get your pet cause on the ballot as a proposed statute, all you have to do is gather signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent the number that voted in the most recent gubernatorial election.

Getting to that number has nothing to do with persuading people to agree with your proposal. It is all about raising enough money to pay signature-gatherers, who will then go out and say whatever they have to say to get people to sign the petition.

In 2012, Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun paid signature gatherers to try to stop the state from building another bridge by telling folks they must sign in order to “let the people decide,” a populist-sounding phrase that would have held a simple decision to build infrastructure hostage to the popular vote — all for the benefit of one individual.

That same year, the UAW got a measure on the ballot that would have tossed out more than 100 economic and labor statutes by imploring signatories to “stand up for working people.”

It is to the credit of Michigan voters overall that none of these passed, but the process needs to be changed before a measure appealingly deceptive enough to win makes it to the ballot.

There is something to be said for giving citizens the right to take matters into their own hands, but it has to be done in a way that is not so easily abused.

Suggestions:

  • Raise the number of signatures required for statutes to 20 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election from the existing 8 percent — and for constitutional amendments to 25 percent from the existing 10 percent. That way you only get things on the ballot that truly have widespread support.
  • Ban signature-gathering companies from taking part in the process. If you want to do it, you need to do it yourself. That will prevent wealthy individuals or interest groups with the ability to raise cash from buying their way onto the ballot.

These changes would make it very hard to get an initiative on the ballot. And it should be very hard. It’s very hard to change these statutes once they’re enacted, and almost impossible to unravel constitutional amendments.

Abuse of the initiative process is every bit as detestable as the use of the much-maligned lobbyists who roam the halls of the Capitol Building in Lansing. At least when the lobbyists succeed at manipulating the legislative process for the benefit of their clients, we know who they are and we know who they persuaded, and how, and why.

When some hired gun persuades some lunkhead standing outside the library to sign a petition to “go to bat for working people” or some such nonsense, the annals of history will never record it. But we’ll have to live with the consequences of it, unless we stop indulging the fantasy that this abuse-riddled process represents the true exercise of citizen democracy.