DETROIT – The affirmative action saga continued in downtown Detroit last night as the Michigan Civil Rights Commission held the first of several hearings to investigate allegations that circulators collecting signatures for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative deceived petition signers.
MCRI, which has collected more than 500,000 signatures to place an initiative on November’s ballot that would ban some affirmative action programs in Michigan, has vehemently denied all fraud charges.
But Detroiters showed up by the dozens last night to tell tales of alleged fraud.
“I’m here tonight to represent myself saying ‘Take my signature off,’ ” said Lynn White, a Detroit resident and member of a city workers’ union.
White said a canvasser working for MCRI told him the petition was in support of affirmative action. MCRI purposefully employed black circulators to collect signatures so they could be used “as a smoke screen to bamboozle us to sign it,” he said.
“Who in their right mind – being black – would sign that petition?” White said.
The members of the commission questioned several witnesses brought in by BAMN – a militant group in opposition to the measure – in an effort to iron out the details of the alleged fraud, asking them to clarify what circulators told them about the initiative and what they understood those descriptions to mean.
What the commission will do with the testimony is unclear at the moment, said commission spokesman Harold Core.
“Right now they are just listening,” Core said.
Under Michigan’s constitution, the commission has a duty to “carry out the guarantees against discrimination.”
Core explained that the group acts as a quasi-judicial body, and can issue orders similar to a judge, or make recommendations to another body such as the Michigan Supreme Court.
Although more than 300 people spilled into the hall at the Cadillac Place where the hearing was held, not a single representative of MCRI attended.
MCRI executive director Jennifer Gratz released a statement prior to the event calling the hearing “a kangaroo court,” saying the commission was merely providing BAMN “a stage upon which to conduct its ridiculous political theater.”
The release included a statement from MCRI to members of the commission that said: “We believe that civil rights belong to everyone and are not the sole property of a single group of individuals.”
Katherine Blake, vice president of the Flint chapter of the NAACP, which has also campaigned against the initiative, claimed a black circulator deceived her daughter into signing the petition by claiming it supported “civil rights.”
” ‘Civil rights’ to a black person means civil rights for black people,” she said, adding that several Flint residents who signed the petition had shared similar stories.
BAMN spokeswoman Shanta Driver also testified, giving the commission almost 140 signed affidavits from people claiming they had been misled by canvassers.
“We haven’t found a single black person who said they knew what they were signing,” said Driver.
She said BAMN had talked with between 500 to 1,000 signers and is trying to organize investigations of almost 300,000 signatures. She claimed that her organization also has the names of seven circulators who have signed affidavits saying they lied to people to get them to sign the petition.
Doyle O’Connor, one of two Democrats on the Board of Canvassers, also attended the event. The board voted on Dec. 14 to keep MCRI off the November ballot, only to be overruled by the Michigan Court of Appeals on Dec. 20.
The Board will vote again on Jan. 20 to decide whether new language put forth by the state elections director is fair.
“This has been such a controversial issue,” he said, adding that he came to see what additional proof BAMN presented to support their case.
He said the Board of Canvassers deliberated before its Dec. 14 vote on whether it was the proper authority to review allegations of fraud, but he believed the evidence was so compelling that it was “inappropriate for us to approve it.”
In effort to convince officials to remove the initiative from the ballot, BAMN has organized a website where residents of Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids can search for names of people who have been tricked into signng.
After hearing more than two hours of testimony and receiving dozens more applications to testify, commission member Kelvin Scott asked the eight-member board to vote on a motion to hold additional hearings.
The board approved the motion, but said it is not yet clear when and where those hearings will take place.