Uncivil fight

Jun 21, 2006 at 12:00 am

Detroit's two daily newspapers didn't seem to think it was worth much coverage, but News Hits thought you'd be interested to know that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission has officially declared that the people behind the November ballot proposal seeking to ban affirmative action in this state committed voter fraud.

Two weeks ago the commission, a part of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, released a strongly worded report that didn't leave much room for misinterpretation. We quote the first line:

"This report presents evidence of shameful acts of deception and misrepresentation by paid agents of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MRCI)."

Things only got juicier from there.

The 10-page report (available at michigan.gov/mdcr) summarizes the testimony and affidavits the commission collected at four public meetings held earlier this year. In Detroit, Flint, Lansing and Grand Rapids, hundreds of people told commissioners that they or someone they knew had been misled by petition gatherers working on behalf of the MCRI, the group behind the drive to ban affirmative action policies in state universities and government offices. More than 500 additional people — black and white, laymen and professionals (including district court judges from Wayne and Genesee counties) — sent affidavits alleging fraud.

"It appears the acts documented in the report represent a highly coordinated, systematic strategy involving many circulators," states the report. "The impact of these acts of deception is substantial."

According to the report, signature gatherers targeted areas with high concentrations of African-American residents, telling people that the petition supported affirmative action, or, in some cases, sought to increase the minimum wage. Potential signers were dissuaded from reading the petition language and told that such civil rights leaders as Macomb County NAACP President Ruthie Stevenson were supporting the effort. This surprised Stevenson, who in Detroit testified that she actively opposes any ban on affirmative action.

These were strong allegations being aired against the MCRI, and after the report hit the street, their officials came out smearing. Ward Connerly, the architect behind the ballot proposal and a driving force behind the 1996 affirmative action ban in California, had harsh words for the commission.

"The Civil Rights Commission is nothing more than a government sponsored lynch mob and a fraud," he said in a press release issued after the report was made public.

MCRI officials didn't bother attending the four hearings to present their side of the story.

MCRI Executive Director Jennifer Gratz told News Hits she thought sending representatives to the "kangaroo court" commission a waste of time.

"Their minds were made up even before they had these hearings," she says. "It was a disgusting abuse of taxpayer dollars."

As far as the allegations of fraud, Gratz says they're not true.

"I don't think that happened," she says. "The circulators were knowledgeable about the issue."

The MCRI may soon have some explaining to do in court, however. Shanta Driver, spokeswoman for the Detroit-based activist organization By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), says the group plans to file a lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act today on behalf of six plaintiffs. The suit seeks an injunction stopping the proposal from going before voters until a full investigation is concluded. It also accuses the MCRI, the State Board of Canvassers and the Michigan Secretary of State of voter fraud.

"It's their job to make sure petitions were signed without using fraud," Driver says. "But then they say even if it was a complete fraud, why shouldn't we put it on the ballot anyway?"

In January 2005, the MCRI submitted more than 500,000 signatures to the State Board of Canvassers in support of placing its measure on the November 2006 ballot. In a meeting disrupted by protestors, the board failed to approve the measure. MCRI then successfully went to the state Court of Appeals to force the approval. The ACLU, BAMN and others have since asked the Michigan Supreme Court to remove the measure from the ballot, but that court has so far refused to hear their case.

Gratz says groups like BAMN are relying on lawsuits to kill the ballot proposal because they're worried voters might pass it. But an EPIC-MRI poll released last week says the race is too close to call — out of 600 polled, 43 percent favor ending affirmative action, 42 percent oppose the ban and 15 percent are still undecided. The poll carries a 4 percent margin of error.

The commission sent its report to the state's Supreme Court, members of the Legislature and the Michigan Attorney General's office, where a spokesman says it's now under review.

"We did what we could do," says commission spokesman Harold Core. "Right now the ball is in their court. Our hope is that the courts will do the right thing."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]