Reform of Michigan’s Ballot Question Process
CRC has examined the laws and processes for placing ballot questions before the voters in Michigan to examine the roots of dissatisfaction some may feel and in search of reforms that may restore the confidence in government. A plethora of ballot questions in recent elections, heavy reliance on constitutional amendments instead of statutory changes, frequent court challenges to the proposals, and issue advertising that leaves voters not quite certain about the implications of their votes all combine to create an uneasiness at election times.
Like almost every other states, votes are asked to approve constitution amendments proposed by the legislature. The legislature occasionally asks voters to approve legislative matters, usually related to the issuance of state debt. Michigan is one of 15 states that authorize electors to use the initiative for constitutional amendments and statutes and to call for referendums on enacted laws.
While the six ballot questions posed to electors at the November 2012 election seemed like a lot, Michigan electors were asked to vote on 11 ballot questions in 1978. Additionally, Michigan electors were asked to vote on eight questions apiece in 1968 and 1972, and seven questions apiece in 1980 and 1982. Michigan electors also voted on six ballot questions in 1994, 1996, and 2002. Five ballot questions were voted on in 2006. Thus, while some discontent with the ballot question process may arise because of the number of questions on the ballot in 2012, Michigan electors have had years where they were asked to vote on a higher number of questions.
The degree of difficulty for placing ballot questions before the electors in Michigan relative to other states varies by the type of question. Most of the ballot questions that have appeared on the Michigan ballot since the present Michigan Constitution was adopted in 1963 have been constitutional amendments proposed by the legislature. The process the Michigan legislature uses to place these proposed amendments before the voters is not out of line when compared to that used in other states. While the two-thirds majority vote requirements needed in each house of the Michigan legislature are among the most stringent, several states require legislative votes to occur in two legislative sessions before a proposed constitutional amendment can be presented to the voters.
The second highest number of ballot questions has been constitutional amendments that have been placed on the ballot by initiatory petitions. It is relatively easy for petition circulators to qualify proposed constitutional amendments for the ballot in Michigan. The process for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments to qualify for the ballot in Michigan is a direct initiative, a petition with sufficient signatures is qualified for the ballot: the legislature does not play a role in the process. The circulation period is relatively short, but Michigan law does not require an exceptionally high number of signatures to qualify for the ballot, nor are ballot question proponents required to obtain geographic diversity among the petition signers. Michigan uses statewide (as opposed to county) petitions, which makes the circulation process simpler.
Likewise, it is relatively easy to qualify voter referendums for the ballot in Michigan when compared to the other states that authorize referendums. Michigan does not require a high number of signatures, does not require geographic diversity for the signatures, and collects the signatures on statewide petitions. It is easier to qualify petition-initiated statutory changes for the ballot in half of the states in which these measures are authorized, but harder in the other half of those states. However, the issue is not how hard or easy it is to qualify for the ballot in Michigan relative to other states, but the degree of difficulty between initiated constitutional amendments and initiated statutory changes in Michigan. The minor differences in signature requirements between initiated constitutional amendments and initiated statutes leaves ballot question proponents little incentive to seek statutory change when a constitutional amendment will provide more permanence.
For all of these petition-initiated measures, state policymakers in Michigan may also wish to consider whether advances in communication, transportation, and political engagement have made it significantly easier to reach the threshold amounts of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot compared to the difficulty when these tools of direct democracy were authorized a century ago.