Local officials sue to block law prohibiting ballot info

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LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) – School and local government officials have filed a federal lawsuit to block a new Michigan law that restricts them from informing voters about ballot issues.

The complaint Tuesday against the state alleges the “gag order” law unconstitutionally infringes on free speech rights. Local officials are seeking an injunction so they can disseminate information before March 8 elections.

The Republican-backed law was signed this month by Gov. Rick Snyder. The law prohibits public money or resources from being used to disseminate information about local ballot measures through TV and radio ads, mass mailings or robocalls in the 60 days before an election.>>PDF: Public Act 269

Local officials say there’s no compelling state interest to bar their communications with voters in an “objectively neutral manner.”

Longtime Dowagiac Mayor Donald Lyons is one of the complainants in the suit.

“It was just so awful that there’s no defending it,” he said.

In the upcoming March 8 election, he will ask voters to decide whether the city clerk should switch from an elected position to an appointed one. He says the new law has made it harder for city leaders to let the public know about it. Normally, the city would mail out information about the ballot measure in the weeks before the election, but that’s no longer allowed.

“If we can’t as elected officials communicate using every possible means … why are we even here?” Lyons wondered.

He also said the new law is strange because it includes only some methods of communications and doesn’t mention others, like newspapers, emails or the use of social media.

Pre-existing law already makes it illegal for officials to use public dollars to encourage a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ vote. But supporters of the new law claim school and city officials would often go beyond just informing and would instead advocate for ballot issues.

When Gov. Snyder signed the bill, he urged lawmakers to follow up with clarifying legislation. Monday, state Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, and Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frakenmuth, submitted bills to do just that. The bills would shorten the restriction from 60 days to 30.

“There’s some that want a total repeal. That’s not going to happen. And I think that this is a good compromise,” Hughes told 24 Hour News 8 on Tuesday. “I think it does make sense to have some kind of provisions on how you spend public dollars, for sure.”

It’s unclear when action will be taken on those bills. Regardless, they likely wouldn’t appease the complainants who filed the lawsuit.

“Quite frankly, going from 60 days to 30 days is disingenuous,” Lyons said. “All of the publications, all of the publicity, all of the efforts before an election is within the last 30 days.”

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