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Petition circulators can lie to you. Here's how to make sure you know what you're signing

It is petition signing time in Michigan.

When you go vote tomorrow it is very likely that you will be greeted by a petition circulator.

These circulators look for registered voters because they need to submit enough signatures to the state in order to quality for next year’s ballot. Maybe you’ve already met folks trying to get you to sign onto a petition regarding marijuana legalization, redistricting, or whether Lansing should move to a part-time Legislature.

But, here’s a crazy truth: those petition circulators are not legally obligated to tell you the truth about what you are signing.

Now, we’re not saying that all of these circulators are purposely misleading people. Not at all. Maybe, the folks asking for your signature don’t know exactly what the question would do. Many are actually paid per signature they gather so, it’s often more important to them to get a signature than it is to make sure the question is thoroughly explained.

Democratic state Representative Jeremy Moss wants to change that. “There’s nothing in Michigan law to prevent somebody with a petition from lying to them about getting them to sign,” Moss told It’s Just Politics.

Moss and some fellow Democrats and a couple Republicans want more regulations when it comes to petition-signature gathering.

“We’ve seen this deception used in many election cycles before, so it’s time to say, enough is a enough, and there has to be a restoration of integrity in ballot drives and petition gathering.” This includes what a circulator can say about what exactly a ballot question would do. And, consequences if that circulator lies.

The legislation would also end the per-signature payment for circulators and, instead, pay them by the hour.

But, enforcing this new legislation would be extremely difficult. Imagine the state trying to regulate hundreds of thousands of one-on-one conversations, trying to determine the accuracy of each claim. And, very often, ballot question language is written to purposely be misleading.

In the short run, these bills are not likely to be adopted. Powerful interested like the status quo. But this legislation does call attention to ways the petition process can mislead voters to what’s supposed to be citizen-initiated democracy.

And, you have some power in all of this.  On the top of every petition signature booklet there’s a summary of the petition. Ignore it. Yes, ignore it.

Instead, turn the petition over. There, on the back, you can read exactly what the initiative or amendment would do. Make sure you know what you’re signing. After all, it’s your name on the line helping to decide the future of your state.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Radio’s Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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