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Ballot drive, suits eyed to fight Michigan vote reforms blasted as suppression

Absentee ballots
(Bridge file photo)

Oct. 12: Michigan clerks: Read fine print of Secure MI Vote. It could ban volunteers.
Sept. 23: What to know about Secure MI Vote initiative: security or suppression?

LANSING — Voting rights groups, advocacy organizations and Democrats are launching aggressive campaigns to fight a new Republican petition drive that aims to tighten Michigan voting and election laws.

The Michigan Democratic Party is preparing a “decline to sign” campaign and has a “team of lawyers” that is picking apart the petition language to prepare for potential lawsuits, said Lavora Barnes, party chair.

Voters Not Politicians, a ballot committee that mobilized an army of volunteers to fight gerrymandering in 2018, is considering another statewide ballot proposal to thwart the GOP initiative as part of a multi-phase response.

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The advocacy group will do "whatever we need to do to protect our voting rights," executive director Nancy Wang told Bridge Michigan.

Voters Not Politicians is recruiting and training volunteers to discourage Michiganders from signing the petition, she said. But if that fails, "we'll be looking to the 2022 election as well."

Republican organizers with the Secure MI Vote committee plan to begin circulating petitions next month for an initiative that would tighten voter ID rules. It would eliminate an affidavit option for in-person voting and require absentee ballot applicants to provide an ID number or part of their social security number.

The initiative would also prohibit election officials from providing voters with unsolicited absentee ballot applications and bar government officials from accepting private grant funding for election administration.

Organizers, who tout a provision that would set aside $3 million to provide free voter IDs for qualifying residents, say the GOP initiative would make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

But critics have blasted the initiative as a form of “voter suppression” motivated by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has promised to veto any legislation that makes voting harder, but in a strategy first outlined this spring by Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser, the GOP is attempting to utilize a unique provision in the Michigan Constitution to go around her.

If Secure MI Vote collects at least 340,047 valid signatures within 180 days, their initiative would go to the Michigan Legislature, where Republican majorities could enact it into law without the governor's signature and without a statewide vote of the people.

“You can collect 340,000 signatures and take voting rights away from 8 million Michigan voters,” Wang said, describing the GOP initiative as part of a national effort to limit voter turnout in future elections.

“We will use all the tools at our disposal” to fight it, she said.

Wang confirmed that Voters Not Politicians is considering a petition drive of its own for what would be a 2022 ballot proposal to undo or undermine the GOP initiative.

What that might look like is not yet clear. It’s early in the planning process, and Wang said the group will likely wait to see whether Secure MI Vote is able to collect enough signatures before pursuing a petition.

Jamie Roe, a Republican operative and spokesperson for the Secure MI Vote committee, scoffed at the idea of a counter petition drive, pointing to public opinion polling indicating most Michigan voters support the kind of strict voter ID laws his group is now proposing.

“If they want to try and pass a law that says ‘You don't have to have an ID to vote that 80 percent of people will oppose,’ I suppose they can feel free to try that,” Roe told Bridge Michigan.

“We don't base our plans off what they're going to do,” he added. “We have a plan that we believe is broadly supported by the people of Michigan, and we're already getting a great deal of interest from grassroots groups that want to circulate and spread the message. We're ready to get rolling.”

‘Misleading and deceptive’

Before the GOP group begins collecting signatures, it’s asking the Michigan Board of State Canvassers to review the form of its petition, an optional step designed to minimize the risk of future lawsuits.

A summary that will appear at the top of each petition sheet has emerged as the first front in what will likely be a lengthy war over Michigan voting laws.

Critics are calling on Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater to reject or revise Secure MI Vote’s proposed summary, which says the initiative will "protect the right to vote and increase confidence in the conduct of elections" by requiring photo identification and providing free ID to anyone who needs it.

The language is “misleading and deceptive," said Mary Clark, a Democrat who chairs the bipartisan Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

Among other things, critics note that low-income residents can already obtain a free photo ID if they are enrolled in any public assistance program.

In a recent letter to Brater, the clerk's association argued the proposal will lead to "voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression and an increased number of provisional ballots issued and ultimately not counted."

Several groups, including Voters Not Politicians, last week submitted their own proposed petition summary language to Brater, who is expected to recommend language to canvassers later this month.

“It is critical that voters understand exactly what they are signing when they sign a petition," said Sharon Dolente of Promote the Vote, which organized a successful 2018 ballot initiative that enshrined voting rights in the Michigan Constitution.

Voter ID laws have withstood legal challenges in other states, but the Michigan’s Democratic Party chair, Barnes, said its attorneys are studying the Michigan initiative for potential litigation should it be enacted into law.

"I'm not a lawyer, I just hire them at the party, but from my perspective, I look at this and I do see it as a direct infringement upon people's right to vote, which feels like it's not constitutional," she said.

The Michigan Republican Party is expected to support the voting and election reform initiative, but a recent ruling by the Bureau of Elections means the GOP will not be able to fund the campaign using anonymous donations to its administrative account.

Weiser, the MIGOP chair, first outlined petition drive plans in March, saying reforms are needed to “have a fair election in 2022.” It's unlikely changes proposed by the GOP initiative would take effect until the 2024 election, however.

‘Decline to sign’

For Voters Not Politicians, the campaign against the GOP voting initiative began months ago when Senate Republicans introduced a 39-bill election reform package as a prelude to the petition drive.

The group has already recruited "hundreds of volunteers" to appear at public events where Secure MI Vote may attempt to collect signatures to ensure circulators don't "lie" about the content of the petition and to "set the record straight," Wang said.

"We have canvassing shifts where people are going to be dropping literature, going door to door already before this petition even hits the field," she said. "I think people are revved up about this. They really understand what's at stake."

The Michigan Democratic Party plans to use public outreach and digital advertisements to discourage voters from signing the GOP petition, Barnes told Bridge.

"We think it's important that people understand the truth of what this petition would do and what it is," she said.

While Voters Not Politicians rewrote the playbook for successful grassroots campaigns in 2018, “decline to sign” efforts rarely succeed in Michigan.

Republicans behind the Secure MI Vote committee are confident they'll be able to collect enough signatures to advance the initiative to the Legislature.

One of them has done it before: GOP operative Fred Wszolek helped mastermind the Unlock Michigan campaign that collected more than 460,000 valid signatures to overturn an emergency powers law Whitmer had used to issue orders early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I find it ridiculous that they're trying to have a ‘decline to sign’ campaign against something that's supported by 80 percent of the people of Michigan," said Roe, the Secure MI Vote spokesperson, again referring to public polling on voter ID.

"It's amazing. These people fight against things that the people want all the time."

But voting rights advocates contend Michiganders are already on record voicing their clear desire for convenient and accessible elections.

They point to 2018, when 70 percent of statewide voters approved the Promote the Vote ballot proposal that wrote no-reason absentee voting and same-day voter registration into the Michigan Constitution, among other things.

Wang, with Voters Not Politicians, acknowledged the GOP group may be able to collect the required 340,000 signatures needed to advance their new initiative.

"Are we going to stop them from collecting that number? We don't know ... But certainly we're going to make it so that people don't unwittingly sign and so they're not misled," she said. “This is a multi-part opposition.”

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