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Imagine you are walking down State Street on a surprisingly warm and sunny spring morning. You spot someone on the corner by Starbucks with a clipboard and pen. Immediately, you know what comes next: “Are you a Michigan registered voter? Do you support the Fight for 15?” 

Signature gatherers, also called circulators, are individuals who attempt to collect signatures for ballot initiatives, referenda or candidates running for office. They are also impossible to avoid at the University of Michigan. I have been approached everywhere from South Quad Residence Hall to North Quad Residence Hall, State Street to South University Avenue and from the Central Campus Transit Center to the Diag to sign for this or that. Especially during the warm parts of the winter semester, and the summer as well, signature gatherers are everywhere and typically make up a slight annoyance of most students’ days. 

Ballot initiatives are the primary petitions I see in Ann Arbor, and it seems like there is always some new or different initiative to sign for, from a $15 minimum wage to better legislation on voting procedures. While these petitions may seem annoying and irritating, ballot initiatives could change our lives for the better.

Michigan is one of 26 states that provide for ballot initiatives and referenda, allowing citizens to propose both laws and constitutional amendments as well as referenda on legislation. A ballot initiative specifically is a type of petition that can either place legislation before the state legislature (an indirect initiative) or place it directly onto the ballot for voters to decide (a direct initiative). These initiatives require a certain number, a varying proportion of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, of valid signatures by certain deadlines to appear on the ballot. 

Many big changes in our state have come from the people, but it is important to remember that not every state has the same rights and abilities as Michigan. The ability to use “people power” to change the law is not as accessible elsewhere in the country. As stated previously, 24 states do not allow initiatives or referenda in any capacity. Ballot initiatives allow the people to influence legislation, display what is important and also circumvent the state legislature by collecting signatures and then voting in the following election. This is what occurred in 2018 when marijuana was legalized and the independent redistricting commission was created to alleviate gerrymandering.

While it is annoying to be hassled by signature gatherers, the ballot initiative is an incredibly powerful and potent tool that can fundamentally change the way our state works at the behest of the majority. While some may disagree with majoritarianism, claiming there are threats of the tyranny of many, it is a cornerstone of democracy in the United States. This power can be harnessed by people who feel that elected representatives are lacking and that the system is broken. Seeing actual change could revitalize an otherwise apathetic voter. These changes can be far-reaching and impactful as well. Take, for example, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which produced new district maps. Although not perfect by any means, it will hopefully make Michigan’s state government more competitive and fair by reducing gerrymandering and misrepresentation.

Some examples of ballot initiatives currently collecting signatures for the November election are focused on important topics such as election reform, minimum wage and reproductive rights. These topics are all controversial and are being highlighted on the national stage right now. Being able to remove some of the traditional political games from the equation and have the people decide is an asset as well as an alternative to relying on protections from state legislatures following or disregarding public opinion. The importance of the ballot initiative has never been greater. With many states restricting voting rights, a politicized Supreme Court determining the legality of Roe v. Wade and the outright politicization of schools, now is the time to use popular power via ballot initiatives to protect what most people agree should be protected.

Abortion has dominated media and news stories for the last few weeks since the release of the draft memo of a Supreme Court ruling that would overturn Roe v. Wade. The topic of abortion has become increasingly controversial now that conservative justices have solidified a 6–3 majority on the Supreme Court. Now, as Americans watch and wait to see what happens, some may feel helpless, given that such a small, remote and detached institution decides the fate of many women across the country in potentially vulnerable situations. While many have already taken to the streets, passing ballot initiatives is the perfect way in which the majority of people can prevail.

To make it completely clear, most Americans believe that abortion should be legal, and more people have identified as pro-choice in 2021 than pro-life. And yet, Michigan and many other states have laws that would outlaw abortion mostly or completely if Roe v. Wade is overturned. This is where the ballot initiative shines. A ballot initiative could get reproductive rights enshrined in Michigan’s constitution regardless of laws passed by the legislature in the 1930s and irrespective of the current opinion of the Supreme Court. The Michigan Right to Reproductive Freedom Initiative is currently supported by several organizations, including the ACLU of Michigan and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan. Let’s not forget, too, that the majority of Americans and a majority of Michiganders support reproductive rights.

Despite the annoyance, frustration or otherwise awkwardness of your interactions with signature gatherers, they are an important and integral part of the political system in Michigan. In a country with extreme polarization, incredibly complex systems of government and counterintuitive, counter-majoritarian systems like the electoral college, the ballot initiative is a shining beacon of hope for “people power.” Next time, take the time to sign.

Sam Schmitz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at schmitzd@umich.edu