MI: Marijuana Ballot Battle Pulls State Into Federal Court


After a string of setbacks in state courts – including a refusal to hear their case by the Michigan Supreme Court earlier this week – marijuana activists turned to federal court as they continue battling to put a legalization question before Michigan voters this fall.

On Friday, lawyers with the MI Legalize group had Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and other state election officials served with their latest legal salvo, filed Thursday night in federal court in Flint. This latest motion requests a temporary restraining order, “to keep the state from printing ballots” while forcing state election officials to recount the group’s 354,000 petition signatures – all within three days, according to the filing.

“And if there’s enough signatures, they have to put our question on the ballot,” said Tom LaVigne of Grosse Pointe Park, a lawyer and board member of MI Legalize. The group needs slightly more than 252,000 signatures to be certified as coming from registered voters to qualify.

Johnson along with state Director of Elections Chris Thomas in June declared that “at least 200,000” of the petition signatures submitted by MI Legalize were “stale” because they’d been gathered outside a 180-day window that state election policy said was the maximum time period allowed. A series of court rulings upheld their decision and also upheld the 180-day limit for collecting signatures aimed at changing state law.

But leaders of MI Legalize have repeatedly argued against the 180-day limit – calling it arbitrary, unfair and unconstitutional – in a their series of recent court filings, and also at hearings early this year, before both the Board of State Canvassers and a committee of state lawmakers. MI Legalize said it provided a sensible way for state election officials to prove that all of the group’s petition signatures were valid, coming from people registered to vote at their moment of signing, but state officials refuse to accept the means for validating the “stale” signatures – using the state’s own computer listings, called the Qualified Voter File, LaVigne said Friday.

Moreover, MI Legalize would like to see the “180-day window” simply tossed out because that would make it easier for any grassroots group to qualify its question for ballots, the group’s chairman Jeff Hank said earlier this week. Otherwise, petition groups need “at least $2 million dollars on day one of your campaign” because they need a small army of professional circulators to collect enough signatures within the time limit, Hank said.

“By imposing this, they’re handing the first-amendment rights of all Michiganders to big money,” he said.

MI Legalize lawyers filed the motion on behalf of two plaintiffs, named in the lawsuit as circulators as well as signers of the petition that asks for the marijuana measure to be on statewide ballots. Dakota Blue Serna, 32, is a military veteran and resident of Dimondale in Eaton County; and Sean Myers is a lawyer who lives in Berlin Township near Monroe, according to MI Legalize.

Both plaintiffs assert, in affidavits that accompanied the legal filings, that “there is risk for immediate and irreparable injury because I will be deprived of the right to vote on this issue in the November General Election.”

Yet, experts on state election law for months have said MI Legalize would not succeed this year. And some testified at hearings in Lansing against allowing any leeway in approving “stale” signatures. Others said MI Legalize took too long to raise campaign funds and hire professional petition circulators, relying on volunteers until it was too late to gather enough signatures within 180 days.

To get the measure on November ballots, the federal court likely would need to override deadlines for printing and distributing absentee ballots. Municipal clerks start getting their local ballots proofed and printed next week, and they are mailed to overseas military members around Sept. 24, according to the Bureau of Elections.

If the latest effort fails, Hank said he would file an appeal on First Amendment constitutional grounds with the U.S. Supreme Court, but then it would be 2018 at the earliest before the measure would get on state ballots, he said.

The ballot question calls for “taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol”; and it specifies that taxes would go toward state road repairs, education funding and local government coffers, according to the MI Legalize website. Leaders of MI Legalize have said they spent 18 months and more than $1 million in their petition campaign to legalize recreational marijuana.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Marijuana Ballot Battle Pulls State Into Federal Court
Author: Bill Laitner
Contact: 313-222-6400
Photo Credit: Debra Young
Website: Detroit Free Press