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State elections board deadlocks on Unlock Michigan's petition; group plans court challenge

people signing petitions
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Michigan's Board of State Canvassers deadlocked Thursday on certifying a petition that seeks to repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act that Governor Gretchen Whitmer used early in the pandemic to issue COVID-19 orders.

The tie vote of 2-2 was along party lines.

The vote means the Unlock Michigan initiative does not move on to the Republican-controlled Legislature for a vote that would be veto proof. The Board's vote came despite a recommendation from Bureau of Elections staff to certify the petition. Staff determined, from a sample of petition signatures, that Unlock Michigan had far exceeded the number of valid signatures required.

The two Democratic Board members called for further investigation under oath into the validity of the signatures and the manner in which they were collected.

"We are the gatekeepers of election integrity," said Democratic Board Vice Chair Julie Matuzak. "And election integrity includes petitions."

Matuzak's motion, which failed in a tie vote also along party lines, came the day after Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that the results of her office's investigation into the practices of paid petition circulators for Unlock Michigan did not reveal sufficient admissible evidence to bring criminal charges against any individual. But the investigation did reveal misrepresentations by petition circulators and questionable training of them.

Unlock Michigan spokesperson Fred Wzsolek said the group plans to go to court immediately to challenge the Board's decision. He said they will seek "an order from the Supreme Court that these Canvassers do their clear legal duty to certify the sufficiency of our signatures."

"There's no doubt that we have enough signatures to present this to the Legislature," said Wszolek.  "This Board has one job to do and that's to vote to approve the staff report when they're told there are sufficient signatures. And they can't even get that right."

In a 4-3 decision in October, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act.

Wszolek noted the Court's membership has changed since it made its ruling.

"It's not unthinkable this new Supreme Court could overturn that decision if presented with another case," said Wszolek. "So we think it's important for us to finish the job that we started last year and get this law off the books so that this governor and no other governor in the future can go it alone and just rule by decree without any end."

Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.
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