Voter restriction bills in Michigan face potential DOJ challenge

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

Republican lawmakers who are trying to restrict voting in Michigan are risking a legal showdown with the Justice Department.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland made good on his pledge to protect voting rights on Friday, filing a lawsuit against the state of Georgia for enacting legislation that he said is designed to make it more difficult for Black people to vote.

In March, after a historic turnout among Black voters and the election of two Democratic senators, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, signed a bill into law that would impose identification requirements on voters and limit the use of drop boxes.

Republicans in at least three dozen states, including Michigan, are following suit with similarly restrictive bills. At least 14 states have already passed voting restrictions this year.

In announcing the suit, Garland said he will go after other states that try to restrict voting access.

“This lawsuit is the first of many steps we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote, that all lawful votes are counted and that every voter has access to accurate information,” Garland said in a speech Friday. “The Civil Rights Division continues to analyze other state laws that have been passed, and we are following the progress of legislative proposals under consideration in additional states. Where we believe the civil rights of Americans have been violated, we will not hesitate to act.”

The GOP-controlled Michigan Senate and House each passed slightly different bills that would impose stricter ID requirements to vote. The legislation would require voters to submit a photocopy of their driver’s license or state ID card or the last four digits of their social security number to request an absentee ballot.

Republicans also approved a bill to require voters to show their driver’s license or state ID to cast a ballot in person. Under the current law, voters who don’t have access to a photo ID can sign an affidavit attesting to their identity. The new legislation 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.

Under an amended bill in the House, election workers would be required to add a digital copy of voters’ signatures in the electronic poll book at voting locations. If election workers believe the signatures don’t match those on file, voters would have to fill out a provisional ballot.

Voting rights advocates said Michigan’s legislation is more restrictive than other states’ and clearly intended to thwart voter turnout.

“No state in the country imposes these burdensome restrictions on their registered voters when voting at their polling location,” Sharon Delete, senior advisor with Promote the Vote, said in a statement. “These bills are not what the voters of Michigan want. Michigan voters overwhelmingly support creating a voting system that works for all of us. The Senate should reject these bills and this self-serving attempt to exclude American citizens from making their voice heard at the ballot box. And if the Senate does pass these bills, the Governor should veto them.”

The legislation is part of a larger 39-bill package that would curtail voting access, impose restrictions on absentee ballots, limit the secretary of state’s ability to assist voters, and make it easier for political appointees to overturn elections.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has pledged to veto any bills imposing new voting restrictions. But Republicans plan to take advantage of a peculiarity in Michigan’s constitution that allows the state Legislature to circumvent a veto using a voter-driven ballot initiative. 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 on the restrictions, Republican legislators can bypass Whitmer and approve the law.

But doing so could prompt intervention from the Justice Department. On June 11, Garland said the department’s Civil Rights Division would double its staff of lawyers to fight restrictive voting bills by using existing laws, such as the “Voting Rights Act of 1965, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act, to “ensure that we protect every qualified American seeking to participate in our democracy.”

“There are many things that are open to debate in America,” Garland said in a speech Friday. “But the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow.”

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About The Author

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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