ACLU Hails Repeal of Unconstitutional Petition Circulator Law

March 31, 2014

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan applauded the Michigan Legislature today for passing necessary legislation to repeal a state law that prohibited out-of-state residents from collecting petition signatures in Michigan. A lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Michigan earlier this year asking a federal judge to strike down the law was dismissed after the legislature acted.

“The legislature should be applauded for recognizing that petition circulators don’t lose their First Amendment rights once they cross state lines,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director. “Important political issues are rarely isolated to one state. Furthermore, it is absurd to think that a person who has family in Michigan or went to school in Michigan cannot volunteer to help bring about political change.”

In Michigan, advocacy groups must collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to place an initiative or referendum on the ballot. However, Michigan imposes an unconstitutional state residency requirement for petition circulators, barring advocacy groups from working with out-of-state volunteers and organizers to collect signatures.

Last year, the ACLU of Michigan brought this issue to the attention of election officials at the Secretary of State’s office. The ACLU of Michigan raised constitutional concerns and warned that similar “resident only” laws in other states had been struck down as unconstitutional by federal courts all over the country.

After no action was taken to repeal this unconstitutional law, the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, Citizens in Charge and other groups in February. Last week, the legislature acted to remove the residency requirement and the legislation, House Bill 5152, awaits the governor’s signature.

“Nowhere is the right to free speech more important than in the political process,” said Korobkin. “By setting arbitrary residency requirements, state officials needlessly interfere with the democratic process that allows citizens to spearhead policy change, compromising our fundamental rights.”

In its lawsuit, that ACLU of Michigan asked Judge Robert Cleland to immediately stop the state from enforcing the law because the Supreme Court has recognized that circulating petitions for ballot access is core political speech where First Amendment protection is said to be “at its zenith.” A hearing regarding the preliminary injunction had been set for April 10.

In addition to Korobkin, the advocacy organizations are represented by ACLU cooperating attorney Bill Burdett and ACLU of Michigan legal director Michael J. Steinberg.

Key News and Documents

Read more about the legislation

Read the judge’s order dismissing the case

Read the ACLU’s complaint

Read the ACLU’s motion for preliminary injunction