Free from the legal hurdles that hampered its efforts last year, the organizers of the petition drive to ban the use of race in the University’s admissions policies expects to turn in its signatures today and complete a crucial leg in its campaign, according to a written statement by the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.

Organizers for MCRI “will lead key supporters to the Bureau of Elections for final turn-in,” according to the statement. MCRI will make the “major announcement” about signatures in the Capitol Rotunda in Lansing this morning. The group’s website urged signature gatherers to hand in their signatures over the past few days.

Last January, MCRI started to collect the 317,757 signatures needed to place its issue on the 2004 ballot, allowing voters the chance to amend the state constitution to ban race-conscious programs. The group had originally hoped to gather those signatures by early July, but legal challenges severely hampered the campaign, forcing MCRI to aim for the 2006 ballot.

MCRI began in response to the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding affirmative action in admissions policies. The group’s chief proponent, University of California regent Ward Connerly, is a staunch opponent of using race in college admissions, public employment and contracting. Connerly, the chairman of the American Civil Rights Coalition, which is largely said to be MCRI’s chief financial promoter, will speak tomorrow in Lansing with Jennifer Gratz, a plaintiff in the University’s 2003 court case and MCRI’s executive director.

When MCRI submits its signatures, it will be one step closer to getting on the 2006 ballot. But first, Michigan’s secretary of state will have to review the signatures to make sure they are valid. Signers must be registered to vote in Michigan at the address written on the petition; otherwise their signatures are invalid.

“That’s why you have to get more signatures than the legally required minimum,” said Tim O’Brien, who coordinates the signature gathering effort.

In a public meeting last spring, MCRI stated it would need 400,000 to 425,000 signatures in order to ensure its success.

The campaign is now also free from the legal challenges that crippled its drive last year. In December, the court battles led by the campaign’s opponents halted abruptly with an order by the state Supreme Court.

Opponents — BAMN and United Michigan — contend that MCRI’s petition is deceiving. MCRI seeks to amend the constitution to ban “preferential treatment” based on race, sex and other characteristics, in order to make sure every person is treated equally. But the state constitution already guarantees “equal protection” regardless of race, sex, ethnicity or national origin, a fact not stated on MCRI’s petition. The campaign therefore is deceptive and unnecessary, opponents say.

A circuit court judge agreed with the opposition in March of last year, ruling that MCRI’s intent was not to eliminate racial preferences but undo the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding affirmative action.

But the state Court of Appeals reversed that decision by validating MCRI’s petition, a ruling the state Supreme Court has now let stand.

The Michigan Supreme Court declined — in a 4-3 order — to hear an appeal by MCRI’s opponents on that Court of Appeals ruling. Invalidating the petition through the courts had been the opposition’s primary method of stopping the campaign before it reached the ballots.

United Michigan has said it will try to challenge the validity of the signatures submitted by MCRI.

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