Michigan’s Petition Initiative Process Is A Mess

Always read petition language before you sign your name.

Michigan state capitol building

Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, MI in January, 2018.

State government watchers have long found faults in Michigan’s petition initiative process. Those defects are getting renewed attention now amid controversial campaigns to change Michigan laws.

MichMash hosts Jake Neher and Cheyna Roth talk about some of the reasons critics think the process should change.

Subscribe to MichMash on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PodcastsNPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

Typically, political campaigns will launch petition initiatives in order to effectively get around either the Legislature or the governor. Republicans and Democrats respectively control those branches of government in 2021.

If a petition initiative is successful, it goes to the Legislature first, which can pass that law without needing the governor’s signature. If lawmakers don’t take it up, it goes to the statewide ballot. 

The petition initiative process is getting a lot of attention at the moment. Right now, a group is trying to add LGBTQ protections to Michigan’s civil rights law, but that petition was recently rejected by the bipartisan State Board of Canvassers, which said it didn’t get enough valid signatures to move forward. And the Legislature just repealed one of the laws Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to implement strict COVID orders near the beginning of the pandemic. Lawmakers were able to do that without Whitmer’s approval because of the petition initiative process in Michigan. 

“I never understood why the ‘61-’62 constitutional convention did this where you basically say that eight percent of the total vote for governor is as powerful as a majority of the vote for governor, which is what it takes to get elected.” — Zach Gorchow, Gongwer

“I was one of those people they approached for a signature,” said WDET Detroit Today listener Vera in Dearborn. “And their tactics were really unscrupulous. The woman said to me, ‘Do you want to sign a petition to support the governor?’”

Vera is referring to the “Unlock Michigan” petition, which repealed the law that Whitmer used for her orders last year — clearly not a move that would support the governor. Vera is one of many people who claim that they’ve heard petition circulators misleading or even flat-out lying to people to get a signature. Unlock Michigan claims that people like Vera making these claims are lying.

But even if circulators lie about what’s on their petitions, Michigan courts have ruled numerous times that those signatures still count. 

On top of that, there’s also the fact that it really doesn’t take that many signatures to completely take away the governor’s ability to veto a policy initiative. You only need signatures equal to eight percent of the total vote for governor in the last cycle, or roughly 340,000 valid signatures now. That may sound like a big number, but it’s nowhere near the over two million people who voted for Gov. Whitmer in 2018.

Related: Michigan GOP Lawmakers Look to Repeal Governor’s Emergency Powers as Legislative Tensions Rise

“I never understood why the ‘61-’62 constitutional convention did this where you basically say that eight percent of the total vote for governor is as powerful as a majority of the vote for governor, which is what it takes to get elected,” says Zach Gorchow, publisher and executive editor of the Lansing-based Gongwer News Service, in a conversation on WDET’s Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson.

“It logically makes no sense,” he says, calling the process “a mess.”

There are a couple of important lessons from this for anyone who’s out and about and comes across a signature collector, the biggest being to read petition language before you sign. And if you don’t have time to do that, make sure you’re reading up on the news and listening to your favorite public radio station so you know what’s circulating out there.

More from MichMash:

Pandemic Has Hurt Government Transparency, Reporters and Watchdogs Say

Whitmer Proposes Big Investment in Michigan Parks Amid Longstanding Challenges

K-12 Schools Budget a Historic Balancing of Funding for All Michigan Schools, Proponents Say

Michigan Elections Officials Leaving Jobs in High Numbers Amid Threats, Harassment

Trusted, accurate, up-to-date.

WDET strives to make our journalism accessible to everyone. As a public media institution, we maintain our journalistic integrity through independent support from readers like you. If you value WDET as your source of news, music and conversation, please make a gift today.

Donate today »


  • Cheyna Roth
    Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.
  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.