At first glance, the partisan battle over voting rights in Michigan appears similar to that of many other states: The Republican-led Legislature, spurred by former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud, has introduced a rash of proposals to restrict voting access, angering Democrats, who are fighting back.
But plenty of twists and turns are looming as Michigan’s state Senate prepares to hold hearings on a package of voting bills beginning Wednesday. Unlike Georgia, Florida and Texas, which have also moved to limit voting access, Michigan has a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who said last month she would veto any bill imposing new restrictions. But unlike in other states with divided governments, Michigan’s Constitution offers Republicans a rarely used option for circumventing Whitmer’s veto.
Last month, the state’s Republican chairman told activists that he aimed to do just that — usher new voting restrictions into law using a voter-driven petition process that would bypass the governor’s veto pen.
In response, Michigan Democrats and voting rights activists are contemplating a competing petition drive, while also scrambling to round up corporate opposition to the bills; they are hoping to avoid a replay of what happened in Georgia, where the state’s leading businesses didn’t weigh in against new voting rules until after they were signed into law.
The maneuvering by both parties has turned Michigan into a test case of how states with divided government will deal with voting laws, and how Republicans in state legislatures are willing to use any administrative tool at their disposal to advance Trump’s false claims of fraud and pursue measures that could disenfranchise many voters. The proposal puts new restrictions on how election officials can distribute absentee ballots and how voters can cast them, limiting the use of drop boxes, for example.
“These bills contain some of the most outlandish voter suppression ideas that Michigan has ever seen,” said state Sen. Paul Wojno, the lone Democrat on the Michigan Senate’s elections committee. “We’ll find out if what was adopted in Georgia may have backfired, causing legislation like this to be put under a bigger microscope.”
Michigan’s two largest companies, iconic automakers Ford and General Motors, have not weighed in on the proposals specific to the state. But both indicated they opposed changes to Michigan’s election laws that would make voting harder — an apparent effort to get ahead of the issue, rather than come under pressure after laws are passed, as happened to two big Georgia-based companies, Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines.
On Tuesday, GM posted a statement calling on the state legislature to ensure that any new voting law protect “the right for all eligible voters to have their voices included in a fair, free and equitable manner.”
“Anything less falls short of our inclusion and social justice goals,” it added, an apparent shot across the bow of GOP lawmakers.
The Republican push to tighten Michigan’s election laws comes as the state faces a major spike in coronavirus cases, with the number nearing the peak of late December. Whitmer, who declined to be interviewed, called Friday for a two-week pause in youth sports, in-person school and indoor dining and asked President Joe Biden for more vaccine. Republican opposition to Whitmer in Michigan has intensified during the pandemic.
Michigan is one of just nine states that allow voters to petition lawmakers to take up a piece of legislation; if passed, the law is not subject to a governor’s veto. If the Legislature does not pass the bill within 40 days of receiving it, the measure goes before voters on the next statewide ballot. It is a rarely used procedure: Lawmakers have passed only nine voter-initiated bills since 1963, according to the state Bureau of Elections.
But last month, Ron Weiser, the state’s Republican Party chairman, told supporters in a video reported on by The Detroit News that the state party planned to subsidize a petition drive to cut Whitmer out of the lawmaking process.
To do so would require 340,047 voter signatures, or 10% of the vote in the last governor’s election. Weiser said that the signatures would be gathered through county committees with party funding. So far, the signature gathering has not begun, nor has the secretary of state’s office received a proposed bill needed to start a petition drive, as required by law.
A spokesman for the state GOP, Ted Goodman, said the party could easily gather the needed signatures for the initiative if Whitmer vetoes a bill that emerges from the Legislature. “We’re confident we can ensure election integrity reforms ahead of the 2022 elections,” Goodman said.
A preview of what might be in a voter-initiated bill was suggested by a package of 39 bills to change the state’s voting laws that Republicans in the state Senate introduced on March 24. Democrats denounced most of the proposals.
The package would prohibit the secretary of state from mailing unsolicited applications for absentee ballots to voters, require voters to mail in a photocopied or scanned ID to receive an absentee ballot, and restrict the use of absentee ballot drop boxes, among other rule changes. These measures would roll back some of the expanded access to absentee ballots that Michigan voters approved, by a 2-to-1 margin, in a 2018 vote to amend the state constitution.
The bills also include some provisions to make voting easier, such as adding an extra day of early voting on a Saturday and allowing 16-year-olds to preregister to vote.
But the bulk of proposed changes would impose new hurdles to absentee voting, after Trump and Michigan Republicans last year spread misinformation about wide fraud and “irregularities” in the use of mail ballots. They particularly targeted Detroit, the state’s largest city, which has a majority-Black population.
In November’s election, 3.3 million absentee ballots were cast in the midst of a pandemic, out of 5.5 million total votes. Citing scores of audits, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, called the election one of the most secure in Michigan history. Benson said only 15,300 absentee ballots were rejected, less than 0.5%, for reasons such as arriving too late. Biden carried Michigan by 154,000 votes, or 2.8 percentage points.
Benson refused to appear last week before a legislative hearing on the 2020 election, saying it could “further the lies” that undermine faith in voting. The secretary of state has proposed her own election changes, including making Election Day a holiday and allowing clerks two weeks before that date to open absentee ballots and begin processing them; the goal is to shorten the wait for results — one factor that fed misinformation about the 2020 outcome.
Despite the courts’ near-universal rejection of claims of fraud, including the Michigan Supreme Court, Ruth Johnson, a Republican state senator and former secretary of state, said there was a “lot of gaming of the system.”
“There was more cheating last year in an election than I’ve ever seen in Michigan,” said Johnson, who is chairwoman of the state Senate’s elections committee.
Johnson, who represents a district in the Detroit suburb of Oakland County, said the suite of Republican voting bills would receive a fair hearing before her committee and said there was “no predetermined outcome” about which ones would be advanced to the full Senate.
Michigan Democrats are working under the presumption that they will have to fight off both the legislative proposals and a major petition drive.
Lavora Barnes, the party chairwoman, said she was weighing plans that include a competing petition drive and tailing Republican signature gatherers to speak directly to voters and counter GOP claims. She said Democrats might also argue in court that the new voting legislation violates the state constitution.
“We will have our grassroots folks on the ground making sure folks are educated about what they are signing,” Barnes said. “I’m imagining a world where they are standing out in front of folks’ grocery stores and we are actively communicating on the ground during that entire process.”
Nancy Wang, the executive director of a group called Voters Not Politicians, which drove support for the 2018 constitutional amendment, said she was preparing a campaign to pressure Michigan corporations to oppose any new restrictions on voting before a law is passed.
“We’re making it known what is happening and what the impact would be if these bills were to pass,” Wang said. “We’re trying to get the same result they had in Georgia, but earlier.”
Jim Farley, Ford’s CEO, said Friday that the company supports “initiatives that promote equitable access and do not disproportionately affect any segment of the population.”
Michigan Democrats said the prospect of a citizen initiative to bypass the normal lawmaking process would serve to allow a fraction of the state’s white population to disenfranchise Black voters.
“It feels almost criminal to me,” said Sarah Anthony, a state representative from Lansing. “As an African American woman who has worked for years now to expand the right to vote, to mobilize and educate people about why it’s so important to vote, and to lower barriers to people, and now be in the Legislature and see these crafty ways that folks are trying to strip us of the right to vote, words can’t describe it.”
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