When protesters armed with semi-automatic weapons stormed the Michigan state capitol in May to protest Gov. Gretchen Whitmer s stay-at-home orders during the height of the pandemic, it was a sign of things to come.As vivid images of the protest spread, the country saw just how rabid the opposition to common sense public health interventions had become. As the President goads his supporters on by taunting people who wear masks and decrying lockdowns, we ve watched as temper tantrums over mask ordinances and conspiracy theories minimizing the risks of the pandemic have gone viral.
Lost in the political theater is the fact that these lockdown orders—indeed all public health interventions--were intended to protect people against the Covid-19 pandemic. And they were effective. A study conducted by researchers in the UK found states that were best able to reduce mobility saved more lives—and mobility rates decreased more in Michigan under Whitmer s stay-at-home orders than most states in the US. And yet the opposition to Whitmer s bold, life-saving action hasn t let up.
Though Michigan s capitol may no longer be the site of armed siege, her opponents are pursuing other means of revenge. They ve launched Unlock Michigan, a campaign to strip her of the emergency powers she has used to close schools and businesses as well as issue mandates on masks and social distancing. The campaign in Michigan threatens all of our safety and shows just how far anti-science political activists might go to get their way.Michigan has one of the country s most permissive ballot initiative processes, which allows citizens -- as long as they manage to collect a sufficient number of signatures -- to either force the legislature to take up an initiative in a veto-proof up or down vote, or refer it to a vote of the people in the next general election. For the most part, this ballot process has yielded some of the state s most important progressive policies, including legalizing cannabis and passing a comprehensive package to reform voting laws to include no-reason absentee voting and same-day voter registration.
But Unlock Michigan is using the process far more cynically. Although 72% of Michiganders said they approve of Whitmer s handling of the pandemic, according to a Washington Post / Ipsos poll in May, Unlock Michigan is using the ballot process to strip her of the very emergency powers she used to keep people safe. Rather than empowering citizens, Unlock Michigan is conducting an end-around on democracy.
In question here is the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945, which grants the governor the power to extend a state of emergency indefinitely. If 340,047 of the signatures garnered by Unlock Michigan are deemed valid, and the ballot initiative is approved by the GOP-controlled legislature, the 1945 law would likely be repealed. That would leave a 1976 emergency powers law in place, which requires the legislature to approve any extensions to the state of emergency beyond 28 days. Given that GOP legislators have sued Whitmer in state courts over the issue, it s unlikely they would support Whitmer in approving any extensions if the 1945 law were indeed struck down. Judges in two lower courts have twice ruled in the governor s favor and the case is now being heard by the Michigan Supreme Court.As we head into the fall, many epidemiologists are forecasting a potential upswing in Covid-19 cases. In the face of a second wave, swift executive action may be necessary to save lives. But given the efforts of Unlock Michigan, and the opposition from a GOP legislature tilting toward Trump-style pandemic denialism, Whitmer may lack the capacity to do so.
The initiative has already collected more than 500,000 signatures, although they still need to be certified by the Board of Canvassers. One company that collected signatures for the ballot initiative has been accused of misleading people into signing petitions in the past, and a leaked recording revealed a trainer from another company advising signature-collectors on illegal tactics.
If the signatures are certified and the legislature repeals the 1945 law, the governor will be effectively stripped of her emergency powers. Beyond the potential loss of life in Michigan, the reverberations could spill across our borders. Similar groups could exploit citizen initiative processes in other states with Democratic governors like Oregon and California. In Oregon, for example, a recall effort against Gov. Kate Brown, bolstered by frustrations over her public health interventions in response to Covid-19, already failed. But success in Michigan could rekindle these efforts or inspire them elsewhere. Worse, because of Unlock Michigan s cynical misuse of the citizen s initiative process to subvert democracy rather than promote it, success of this kind lends a veneer of "people power" to these groups.What is clear is that even if Donald Trump is removed from office this November, the cynical and undemocratic politicization of this pandemic he unleashed could last far beyond his tenure. And all of us could be the worse off for it.