In spring 2022, Ann Arbor resident Susie Lorand was approached by a petition circulator at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. The circulator asked her to support a ballot initiative they allegedly claimed would reduce barriers to voting.
“The circulator said something to the effect of, (the petition) was going to make it easier to get an ID or driver’s license,” Lorand said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
Lorand said while she normally reads petitions before signing them, she forgot to do so at first. She ran back to the petitioner after signing to read the ballot initiative’s description and realized she had signed a petition for Secure MI Vote, a GOP-backed ballot initiative aiming to increase restrictions on voting access. She crossed her name off the list.
“I signed it because I liked the (petitioner’s) description, … then I read it and then I thought, ‘oh, no, that was stupid,’” Lorand said. “Because the description did not accurately represent the petition that was being circulated … it was really deceptive overall.”
An investigation by The Daily revealed numerous allegations against petition circulators for two Republican-backed ballot initiatives of providing false or misleading information to voters in spring 2022. This investigation is based on interviews with seven residents of the Ann Arbor area, as well as a review of recent news coverage and numerous posts on local social media forums.
The Daily’s investigation found instances of circulators for the Secure MI Vote and Let MI Kids Learn initiatives allegedly engaging in these misleading practices. Let MI Kids Learn, a Betsy Devos-backed ballot initiative, aims to establish a tax credit program to fund donations for student opportunity scholarship programs, which provide funding to students for educational expenses like books and extracurricular programs. Critics of this initiative have argued that it would divert taxpayer dollars from public school funds.
Supported by Michigan Republicans, these ballot initiatives have sparked controversy over their signature-gathering practices.
Fred Wszolek, spokesperson for Let MI Kids Learn, commented on these allegations in an email to The Daily, saying that National Petition Management (NPM), the company the campaign hired to gather signatures, trained their circulators to provide specific information about the initiative.
“(National Petition Management) train their circulators and contractually require their circulators to learn and stick to a set of talking points that are provided by the campaign,” Wszolek wrote. “We’re confident that our team of petition circulators fairly represented the proposal … (ballot initiatives are) composed of thousands of words, so any interaction on a street corner with a petition circulator is going to involve ‘limited information.’”
Wszolek also included a list of approved talking points for the initiative’s petitioners in his email to The Daily. The Daily’s investigation found allegations that petition circulators provided information not included in these talking points.
Secure MI Vote and NPM did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In the state of Michigan, there is currently no legal penalty against circulators who mislead or lie to voters while gathering petition signatures. Individuals who sign petitions under false pretenses also have no way of invalidating their signature if they later realize their mistake.
Political campaigns often work with signature gathering companies such as NPM and Advanced Micro Targeting (AMT) to outsource petition circulation, and these companies often pay circulators on a per-signature basis.
According to campaign finance records, Let MI Kids Learn paid over $5.7 million to NPM for signature gathering services between April and July 2022. Secure MI Vote paid nearly $500,000 for consulting and signature gathering services to Advanced Micro Targeting between January and July 2022.
Both Secure MI Vote and Let MI Kids Learn missed the signature submission deadline to be included on the November ballot.
Bridge Michigan reported that the Secretary of State Office would treat Secure MI Vote as a measure intended for the 2024 ballot and review the signatures at a later date.
Since April 2022, numerous Ann Arbor area residents have shared accounts of petition circulators allegedly engaging in misleading signature gathering practices on online forums such as Reddit and Nextdoor. These posts are not the first time attention has been drawn to such issues surrounding Michigan ballot initiatives.
In September 2020, the Detroit Free Press reported that Unlock Michigan, a group petitioning to strip Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of her emergency powers, advised trainees to lie to voters to obtain signatures. An unknown representative from an opposing organization, Keep Michigan Safe, recorded a video of an Unlock Michigan circulator training session and shared it with the Free Press. In the video, the Unlock Michigan trainer Erik Tisinger appears to instruct circulators to provide incorrect or misleading information to voters.
“This can be a real shady job,” Tisinger said in the video. “And when I say shady, I mean, people do all sorts of illegal shit all the time and never get caught. It’s really hard to get caught doing shit except for, like, forgeries.”
Tisinger proceeded to tell circulators to leave their petitions with store clerks to collect signatures from customers, even though circulators must act as witnesses for all signatures. Tisinger also suggested that they provide misleading or incomplete testimony in the event they are deposed about whether they witnessed a signature.
Bridge Michigan reported that in January, Voters Not Politicians, a voting rights advocacy group, shared video footage in which a circulator for Secure MI Vote appears to attempt to deceive voters in order to obtain their signatures. According to Bridge, the circulator claimed the Secure MI Vote petition would require voters to present two forms of identification at the polls, while the proposed legislation’s actual ID requirements are more stringent. The Secure MI Vote initiative would require voters to provide a state ID and remove the option to sign an affidavit affirming their identity if they did not have the correct identification.
Jamie Roe, a spokesperson from Secure MI Vote, told Bridge he believed Voters Not Politicians was unfairly criticizing the circulators. Roe told Bridge he did not watch the video in question, but said it was possible the circulator was employed by Secure MI Vote.
In interviews with The Daily, four Ann Arbor area residents described instances when Secure MI Vote petition circulators engaged in misleading practices while attempting to solicit signatures.
Lauren McCarthy told the Daily she was approached by a petition circulator in the parking lot of the Kroger on Ann Arbor’s South Maple Road. She said she felt the language the circulator used did not represent the petition he was holding.
“He said that he had this petition about voter ID,” McCarthy said. “And I looked at him and I said, ‘Oh, this is to get rid of voter ID (restrictions), right?’ And he says … ‘Well, actually, it’s the opposite.’”
McCarthy said this encounter made her feel wary of signing any petitions in the future out of concern that she may be misled by a circulator.
“Down at the Farmers Market, there’s also people who have both the (Promote the Vote) as well as the (Reproductive Freedom for All), and I started getting really suspicious,” McCarthy said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, tell me exactly what this does.’”
Saline resident Brandy Bar told The Daily about an encounter with a petition circulator for both the Secure MI Vote and Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiatives. Bar alleged that the circulator told her Secure MI Vote was supported by Republican gubernatorial candidate Perry Johnson in the August primaries.
“(The circulator) said, ‘One of the things (Johnson is) trying to pass is, it’s really hard for people in low-income areas to get state IDs, and so (Johnson) wants to make it easier for (them) to get state IDs,’” Bar said. “I went, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic,’ … So I signed that one.”
Bar said she later researched Johnson and realized she had signed a petition that would impose more restrictions on voting.
“I was so irritated,” Bar said. “I don’t know what that bill really is, but I’m sure it’s not to help low-income areas. It’s something to try to suppress the vote … I should have looked it up before I signed it.”
Bar went on to describe how the circulator spoke about the Let MI Kids Learn ballot initiative in an attempt to get her to sign.
“(The circulator) was like, ‘This would put all the money in a pot, and then your kids’ money would go to the school where they attend,’” Bar said. “I was like, ‘Look, I sat on the Saline School’s Finance Committee. I know how school finance works, and what you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. I’m not signing that.’”
Ann Arbor resident Brandon Dimcheff said in an interview with The Daily that after being misled into signing a petition two years ago, he has made an effort to spread awareness about unethical signature gathering practices.
“I know a few people who signed the Secure MI Vote petitions when they really would not have intended (to),” Dimcheff said. “I’ve experienced this, too, firsthand when I was approached by a petition circulator who seemed to have been branding it as, ‘Do you want to give people free IDs so they can vote?’”
Dimcheff said in May and June 2022 he was approached by multiple petition circulators at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market who he felt misconstrued the goal of the Secure MI Vote and Let MI Kids Learn initiatives. Due to his prior experience, he was skeptical of these circulators’ descriptions and decided not to sign.
“The descriptions that (circulators) give for, particularly (Secure MI Vote and Let MI Kids Learn), are pretty far from what anyone, I think, would consider to be an accurate description,” Dimcheff said.
The Daily’s investigation also revealed multiple allegations of misleading practices against circulators of petitions for Let MI Kids Learn.
In an interview with The Daily, an Ann Arbor resident described an encounter with a circulator for Let MI Kids Learn in downtown Ann Arbor on July 8, three days before the deadline to submit signatures for constitutional amendment initiatives. This resident requested anonymity, citing fears of professional retaliation. In this article, she will be referred to as Michelle.
“(The circulator) said that she was collecting signatures in support of student scholarships,” Michelle said. “I was trying to read the petition language, but … I wasn’t fully understanding it. She was trying to explain it to me and saying, ‘it’s scholarships, they support kids. Kids with disabilities would receive more funding.’”
Michelle said the circulator made her feel pressured to quickly sign the petition before she could fully understand its language. She alleged that the circulator incorrectly told her it was the last day she could sign, and that the petition was “bundled” with the Reproductive Freedom for All initiative, which aims to secure a constitutional right to obtaining an abortion in Michigan. Michelle expressed concern to the circulator that the initiative would divert funds from public schools.
“I said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable signing this because … I don’t understand what it is,’” Michelle said. “‘I don’t understand if this funding would go to charter schools rather than public schools.’ And (the circulator said), ‘Well, no, it doesn’t say charter.’ And I said, ‘But it says nonprofit groups, and that doesn’t specify.’”
Michelle alleged the circulator continued pressuring her to sign. After a few more exchanges with the circulator, Michelle walked away without signing.
“I googled ‘Let MI Kids Learn’ and saw that it was Betsy DeVos-funded and basically another scheme to get vouchers and bleed funding from our public school systems,” Michelle said. “My initial reaction was that she lied to me. She said it wasn’t for charter schools when this money very well could go to charter schools.”
In an interview with The Daily, Amy Landingham, who manages a dental practice in Ypsilanti Township, described an encounter with a petition circulator for Let MI Kids Learn outside of the Target on Carpenter Road.
“(The circulator) started out by saying that (the petition) was for scholarships for underprivileged children,” Landingham said. “They talked about free lunch, which makes it sound really benevolent, and how it just helps the underprivileged children.”
Landingham said she remembered hearing about the Let MI Kids Learn initiative during her time as an Ypsilanti school board member.
“I’m a former school board member,” Landingham said. “The Michigan Association of School Boards has done a massive education campaign about this specific proposal and how the funding comes out of the school aid fund, and how it’s going to defund the public schools. … I just said ‘no, I’m not willing to sign this.’”
Landingham said she was disappointed with the circulator’s dishonesty.
“I was so disappointed that while the things she said were true — it is for scholarships, it is for underprivileged children — they don’t disclose that the money is coming out of the public school system,” Landingham said. “(The initiative) allows extremely wealthy donors to pull money out of the school aid fund (and) to reimburse them for huge contributions to private schools.”
Ann Arbor resident Diane Massell said she encountered a circulator carrying several different petitions outside of a Trader Joe’s, including progressive ballot measures Promote the Vote and Raise the Wage MI, and the DeVos-funded Let MI Kids Learn petition.
“The circulator had many petitions to sign, and I had been looking to sign voting rights petitions like Promote the Vote but had not had an opportunity to do that,” Massell said. “When (the circulator) had the (Let MI Kids Learn) petition as well as Promote the Vote and some of the others (such as) the $15 minimum wage, I just was skeptical of the intent … I didn’t feel that I trusted that source.”
Both of the progressive campaigns contracted with signature-gathering companies, but neither hired AMT or NPM.
The allegations uncovered in The Daily’s investigation are not the only recent accounts of alleged fraudulent practices against petition gathering organizations.
Lee Albright, CEO of National Petition Management, testified in a 2005 Ohio court case in favor of per-signature payments for petition circulators. Albright told the court that his company’s costs for petition drives would rise by 60% if it couldn’t pay circulators per signature.
Advanced Micro Targeting’s website describes itself as a “direct-democracy company”, with its website offering ballot qualification, voter contact and direct mail services. According to a Ballotpedia article on the company, AMT has collected signatures for dozens of initiatives across the nation.
The website’s Careers page states that people who work as signature gatherers for the company should “excel at convincing a voter to sign a petition quickly and respectfully” and “be able to follow strict petitioning laws to collect valid, complete signatures.”
In June 2022, KSNV, an NBC-affiliate news station in Las Vegas, reported on videos that appeared to show fraudulent signature gathering practices by circulators for a ballot initiative to implement ranked choice voting in Nevada. The article says AMT employed the circulators and includes a quote from an unnamed political attorney who said the videos likely display “multiple felonies.” According to KSNV, the company denied the claims of wrongdoing, calling the videos a “smear attempt” and an “obvious act of desperation” in a statement.
The same month, five candidates in the Republican primary for Michigan governor were removed from the ballot for collecting fraudulent signatures in support of their campaigns. The Board of State Canvassers — Michigan’s authority on nominating petitions and ballot measures — found that the petitions for these five candidates contained thousands of forged signatures.
Ballot initiatives can also rely on volunteers to gather signatures, who can individually circulate petitions in their communities before sending them to the Board of State Canvassers.
Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, which supports the Promote the Vote initiative, told The Daily her organization relies on thousands of volunteers to help collect signatures. Wang said volunteers not only help get their cause on the ballot but can also help guide voters on what to look for before signing a petition.
“We have thousands of volunteers who are circulating the petition in downtown Ann Arbor … in order to put Promote the Vote on the ballot,” Wang said. “While we’re doing that, we’re trying to educate voters about the other petitions that are out there and saying, ‘Be careful.’”
There are three certified statewide ballot measures on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election. On Sept. 8, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of placing the constitutional amendments described by the Promote the Vote 2022 and Reproductive Freedom for All initiatives on the ballot as Proposals 2 and 3, respectively.
Two bills were introduced into the Michigan State Senate in July 2021 aiming to modify the petitioning process. Senate Bill 0604 would prevent anyone who has been convicted of a crime from circulating ballot petitions, and Senate Bill 0605 would allow signers to retroactively remove their name from a petition if they later decide they do not support the cause. The bills were referred to the Committee on Elections, but no further action was taken.