How does a ballot proposal get on the ballot?

Here’s a refresher on the process of initiating laws, constitutional amendments and referendums on the ballot.

In addition to electing candidates to political office, Michigan voters are frequently asked to vote on ballot questions for a number of different purposes. The Home Rule City Act allows cities to provide for an initiative and referendum process in their charter, but it is not required. In cities that allow initiated laws or referendum on current ordinances, a petition seeking to amend the city charter must be submitted to the city clerk. It must be signed by at least five percent of the qualified and registered electors of the municipality. Signatures must have been gathered within the last year. The city clerk has 45 days to certify the sufficiency or insufficiency of the petition. If the petition has sufficient signatures, the clerk submits the proposed amendment to the voters at the next regular municipal or general state election, no less than 90 days following the filing of the petition.

Ballot questions are also presented to voters in statewide elections. These petitions may seek to create new or amend existing legislation, seek referendum on enacted legislation (Article II, Sec. 9) or amend the State Constitution (Article XII, Sec. 2).  Prior to collecting signatures in support of a petition, proponents are required to submit a copy of the petition to the Secretary of State. They are also encouraged, though not required by law, to submit the petition to the Board of State Canvassers for approval, reducing the risk that signatures on the form will be ruled invalid due to improper formatting. Petitions proposing constitutional amendments must be filed with the Secretary of State at least 120 days before the election at which the proposal is to be voted on. Initiative petitions are due at least 160 days prior to the election. Referendum petitions must be filed within 90 days after the final adjournment of the legislative session at which the law subject to referendum was enacted. This means that for the November 2016 general election, the filing deadline for initiated legislation was June 1 and the deadline for constitutional amendments is July 11. The deadline for filing referendum petitions for laws enacted in 2015 was March 17, 2016.

Initiated legislation petitions require signatures equal to eight percent of the total votes cast for governor in the last election. According to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, that’s 252,523 signatures for 2016. For constitutional amendments, 10 percent of the votes cast for governor are required, or 315,654 signatures in 2016. For referendums, five percent of the votes, or 157,827 signatures in 2016, are required.

If an initiative to create new or amend existing legislation is determined by the State Board of Canvassers to have enough valid signatures on the petition, the state legislature has 40 days to adopt or reject the proposal. Failing to take action is considered rejection. If the legislature rejects the proposal or does not act, the proposal goes on the ballot for approval or rejection at the next general election. The legislature may also propose a different measure on the same subject. In that case, both measures are submitted to the public at the next general election.

If a petition to amend the state constitution is determined to contain enough signatures, the proposed amendment goes directly to the ballot in the next general election. If approved by the voters, the amendment goes into effect. If a petition for a referendum on legislation gets enough signatures, the proposal goes to the ballot for the voters to determine whether or not the law goes into effect, and implementation of the law is suspended until the election takes place.

This is the first in a series of articles addressing ballot questions in Michigan. The next article will provide an update on the status of current initiated legislation efforts for the 2016 election. Check back here, or subscribe to MSU Extension’s Government and Public Policy newsletters to stay up to date on these and other related issues. If there are statewide proposals on the ballot in November, Michigan State University Extension will develop analyses of them and likely hold ballot proposal forums around the state in the weeks before the election.

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