- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan elections board deadlocked on letting ballot drive organizers more easily prove that voter signatures collected outside a six-month window should still count, a move Thursday that thwarted a marijuana legalization group’s bid to qualify for the November ballot.

The Board of State Canvassers’ 2-2 vote was along party lines, with Republicans opposing the change. The vote came after months of consideration and as the GOP-led Legislature considers legislation that would set a firm 180-day period in which petition signatures for constitutional amendments and citizen-initiated bills can be gathered.

Ballot committees currently can rebut a presumption that signatures older than 180 days are void or stale, but the process is difficult.

The board was split on letting groups use a statewide digital voter registration database, known as the Qualified Voter File, instead of having to visit local clerks to get an affidavit showing that an individual voter was registered both at the time he or she signed a petition and during the six-month window.

That would have lifted what is effectively a cap, helping marijuana and anti-fracking activists count signatures that normally would have been deemed too old. The Qualified Voter File did not exist when the board adopted rules in 1986.

“We should not be changing the rules in the middle of the game,” said Norm Shinkle, one of the board’s Republicans who also argued against doing anything because the House could vote soon on legislation.

Democrat Julie Matuzak countered that his assumption that the Legislature will act is “unfounded.”

“It’s inherent upon us to understand that technology changes. I believe that we should be as liberal as possible in including signatures on petitions. People have signed them or not signed them,” she said.

Jeffrey Hank, executive director of the marijuana initiative MI Legalize, called the deadlock an “outrage” and threatened a lawsuit if his ballot committee submits 252,523 valid signatures by the June 1 deadline. He expects to show that 160,000 to 200,000 signatures are allowable despite being collected outside a 180-day period.

“We’re prepared to do that under what we think the law is,” Hank said. “What they’re asking us to do is impossible. They’re telling us to go to the clerks (for verification); the clerks are refusing to do it.”

If a suit is filed, he said, it would also challenge the 180-day limit as unconstitutional.

Winning extra time could boost the cause of future citizen-based grassroots drives that lack the funding typically needed to hire people to circulate enough petitions.

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Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert

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