Death of voting rights legislation could make it harder to vote in Michigan

click to enlarge Election sign in Detroit. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Election sign in Detroit.

With the plug pulled on federal legislation to protect voting rights, Michigan voters face a rash of GOP-led restrictions that could make it more difficult to vote.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday failed to get 50 votes to change the filibuster rules to adopt two voting rights bills that were intended to combat restrictive measures in Republican-controlled states, including Michigan.

The Freedom to Vote Act would have provided a minimum of 15 early voting days and same-day registration, made Election Day a federal holiday, stopped gerrymandered election maps, and expanded the ability to vote by mail. The John R. Lewis Voting Right Advancement Act would have restored the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and enabled the government to respond to discrimination at the polls, among other things.

“As individuals and politicians choose their place in history, I am encouraged today because while the battle over the future of our democracy is long, the arc bends towards justice,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson tweeted Thursday, alluding to a Martin Luther King, Jr., quote.

In Michigan, Republicans are collecting signatures for a ballot drive that would impose strict photo ID requirements on voters who cast a ballot at polling locations or by absentee. The initiative also would bar the secretary of state and clerks from sending unsolicited ballot applications, as was done in the 2020 presidential election, when a record 3.3 million people voted absentee.

Under the proposal, absentee voters would be required to submit a photocopy of their driver’s license or state ID or the last four digits of their social security number to request a ballot. To cast a ballot in person, voters would be required to show their driver’s license or state ID. Under the current law, voters who don’t have access to a photo ID can sign an affidavit attesting to their identity.

The initiative would ban the use of affidavits and instead require voters to sign a provisional ballot, which would only be counted if voters present their ID to their local clerk’s office within six days of the election.

Last year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed Republican bills that would have restricted access to the polls. But if enough signatures are gathered, the ballot initiative would enable Republican state lawmakers to circumvent a veto because of a peculiarity in Michigan’s constitution that allows the Legislature to bypass the governor and approve a law if more than 340,000 voters — or at least 8% of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election — sign a petition to create a ballot initiative.

The voting rights bills would likely have prevented the initiative from being enacted.

The initiative threatens to reverse the unprecedented steps taken to expand voter access in the presidential election in November 2020. Like in many other states, election supervisors in Michigan sent absentee ballot applications to all active registered voters, supplied prepaid postage on election mail, and provided more than 1,125 drop boxes at curbside locations across the state. The idea was to offer a safe alternative to voting in person during a pandemic.

A record 5.6 million Michigan voters cast a ballot in the general election, shattering the previous record of 5 million in 2008. Of those ballots, 3.3 million were absentee, a three-fold increase from the November 2016 election.

To protect voting rights, Democrats will have to set their focus on opposing the initiative, and that could take money from candidates who are running for statewide office, as well as the Michigan Legislature. Democrats also may have to spend heavily on registering and mobilizing voters.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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