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Secretary of State moves to block interest groups

By Katie Burke, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 3, 2012

After the barrage of political advertisements that accompanied the most recent election cycle, Michigan’s Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has called for an effort to block special interest groups from swaying the ballot.

In a press conference in Lansing on Thursday, Johnson announced the need for a bipartisan committee to review the process in which partisan groups can influence the ballot, particularly in the case of proposals to amend the state constitution.

Johnson said in the conference that enacting governmental change can be too accessible to groups that have a vast array of resources and can foster inequity.

“If you have a lot of money, you can (get) signatures and you can put on a lot of commercials,” Johnson said.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said groups that work to influence elections through a variety of mediums are usually corporations such as Dow Chemical Company, General Motors and Ford Motor Co.

He added that groups pursuing ballot proposals focus their efforts on the Michigan Chamber of Commerce rather than individual legislators.

All six state ballot proposals were voted down on Nov. 6 after record spending on advertisement campaigns for the initiatives.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and groups such as Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution denounced the five ballot proposals to amend the state constitution. Proposal 1, which Snyder supported, was a referendum on the state’s Emergency Financial Manager law that allows government officials to be appointed to serve communities facing financial strife.

Irwin said though most ballot initiatives in the past have not been successful in passing, there have been some that sparked debate among voters.

“A number of issues over the last 10 years have been controversial,” Irwin said. “The ban on same-sex marriage is one that was controversial; the affirmative action ballot initiative was pretty controversial.”

Irwin said he has not agreed with a number of proposals over the years, but their right to have access to the ballot should be inalienable.

“That’s how our process is supposed to work,” Irwin said. “Citizens are supposed to have access to the initiative process, and whenever a group goes out there and puts an issue on the ballot, their enemies will call them special interest groups.”

He said the state should exercise caution in calling for limitations on ballot proposals and other types of influences.

“We need to be very careful when we start throwing around these terms like special interest group, and we need to be careful talking about denying citizens their rights that they have under the constitution to put an issue before the public,” Irwin said.

Political Science Prof. Michael Heaney said ballot proposals have been a part of elections since colonial times, gaining popularity in the early 20th century, though they have proven to be generally ineffective.

“Most initiatives don’t pass; so in general, they’re not that successful,” Heaney said.

Heaney said any movement to exclude special interest groups from the ballot would have to include getting rid of ballot proposals altogether.

“The only way to stop special interest groups from supporting initiatives is to not allow initiatives,” Heaney said. “If a citizen can (propose an initiative), an interest group can do anything a citizen can do.”

Heaney added that Johnson’s effort is probably a response to the high number of proposals on this year’s ballot and the lack of success they all had.

“Maybe (Johnson) thinks that the ballot initiatives are unpopular, but the idea of preventing interest groups from proposing initiatives is completely untenable,” Heaney said.