Coming Soon to a Ballot near you, Part II: Proposals

Welcome to Part II of a post-2010 election, pre-2012 election miniseries here on Great Lakes, Great Times, Great Scott, titled "Coming Soon to a Ballot Near You." Part one, on candidates who may make a comeback, can be found here.

Michigan residents have voted on 19 statewide ballot proposals since 2000. These proposals have legalized medical marijuana and stem cell research; banned gay marriage and affirmative action; and restricted eminent domain, felons serving in office, and pay increases for lawmakers. Voters have also blocked mandates on education funding, mourning dove hunting, the elimination of the 'straight-ticket' voting option, and school vouchers.

Despite Michigan's recent history with controversial ballot proposals, the two that appeared on the 2010 ballot garnered very little attention - and the results of each were decisive. Proposal 1, the proposal for a Constitutional convention which appears on the ballot every 16 years, was defeated by a 2-1 margin, while Proposal 2 passed by a 3-1 margin, thus preventing certain felons from holding elective office until 20 years after their conviction.

The lack of controversy from last year's ballot proposals may have contributed to the low turnout in this year's gubernatorial election. Nearly 570,000 fewer voters showed up at the polls in this year's gubernatorial election compared to 2006 - despite nicer weather and the fact that an unusually high number of seats were open.

But with the 2012 campaign starting to warm up, activists on all sides of various issues are getting ready to collect signatures to put various proposals on the 2012 ballot. Debate surrounding ballot proposals often influences the debate surrounding offices on the ballot. Recall, for instance, the considerable debate surrounding Bush, Gore, and vouchers in 2000, as well as Bush, Kerry, and gay marriage in 2004.

With 3,226,088 people having voted in the 2010 election for Governor, a ballot proposal would need the following number of signatures to get on the ballot, depending on the type of proposal:

  • For a Constitutional amendment: 322,609 signatures

  • For an initiative statute: 258,088 signatures

  • For a referendum on a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor: 161,305 signatures
So the bar has been set a little lower due to the low turnout in the gubernatorial election, meaning this could be the best chance supporters of a certain issue have to get a proposal on the ballot. Result? 2012 could be the busiest year, proposal-wise, that Michigan has had since 1996.

What issues could be the topics of ballot-proposal discussion in 2012?

Mining: Supporters attempted to get a proposal on the 2010 ballot that would have severely restricted mining in Michigan. They say they will try again for the 2012 ballot.

Healthcare: Opponents of President Obama's healthcare law failed to get a measure on the ballot that would have apparently stopped the healthcare law from taking effect in Michigan. A similar measure passed in Missouri last year.

Term limits: This is one of those that is often talked about, but hasn't been on the ballot since the current limits were enacted in 1992. Since then, individuals have been eligible to serve three 2-year terms in the House and two 4-year terms as a State Senator, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, and Governor. Petitions were circulated in 2010 to eliminate term limits, but it didn't make it to the ballot. A group is trying to get it on the ballot in 2012; their proposal also calls for the elimination of the state Senate.

Rights of state employees: The same group attempting to get the term limits/get-rid-of-the-Senate proposal on the ballot is also pushing for three ballot proposals that would curtail the rights of working Michiganians. These proposals would ban collective bargaining by our hard-working state employees; make Michigan what I call a "Work for Less" state; and repeal the Public Employment Relations Act. The Legislature is considering bills that would do these things, thus possibly making these efforts irrelevant. However, if such bills are passed and signed into law, don't be surprised if labor groups unite to force these issues onto the ballot via referendum.

Casinos: Following the passage of Proposal 1 in 2004, new casinos may only be opened following a statewide vote to approve such casinos. If the group Michigan Is Yours gets their way, we could have seven new casinos opening across the state after the 2012 election.

(Historical fun fact: Another provision of the 1992 proposal had limited members of the US Congress from Michigan to six 2-year terms in the House and two 6-year terms in the Senate; however, like other term limits laws affecting members of Congress, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to invoke restrictions on serving in Congress beyond what is already in the Constitution (being of a certain age, living in the US a certain period of time, and living in the state you wish to represent in Congress).)

Government reform: In 2008, a number of Michigan Democrats tried to get a detailed proposal on the ballot that was called "Reform Michigan Government Now. Among other things, the proposal would have reduced the number of state lawmakers and judges; curbed state lawmakers' retirement benefits; mandated a paper trail for all elections; prohibited election officials from being involved in campaigns for elections they directed; and established a commission to conduct redistricting. Each of these issues could be placed on the 2012 ballot separately, although the one on redistricting may wait until later in the decade.

So what should progressive Democrats like us do?

Given that Republicans control the entire Legislature, there may be a lot of bills passed by the Republicans in Lansing that end up being both bad politics and bad policy. In addition to the anti-worker efforts mentioned above, there is also a bill to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit. Forcing these laws onto the ballot by referendum could prove to be a very worthwhile strategy.

Ah, but there's a catch. See, any bill that includes an appropriation of some sort is not subject to a referendum. That was the reason the state Supreme Court blocked a referendum on the controversial concealed weapons law of 2001. If referenda on destructive Republican legislation are prohibited by such appropriations, we could still reverse these laws through the initiative process.

Either way, promoting our stances on issues via ballot proposals is an effort Democrats should definitely undertake. Win or lose on the proposal itself, this strategy would give otherwise apathetic voters - many of them Democrats/Obama supporters - a reason to vote.

And if 2010 taught us anything, it's that they sure do need a reason to vote.

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