Citing potential fraud, court reinstates Michigan ban on paid voter transport

Groups have been barred for 125 years for paying to transport voters to the polls in Michigan. The law was written at the time to prevent organizers from “vote-hauling,” which judges ruled is a form of fraud. (Shutterstock)

LANSING – A federal appeals court panel on Thursday reinstated Michigan’s ban on paid voter transportation for the 2020 election, siding with Republicans in the state Legislature who intervened after Democratic officials refused to defend the law. 

In a split 2-1 ruling, GOP-appointed judges Danny Boggs and Deborah Cook called the 1895 Michigan law a reasonable “prophylactic” against voter fraud. 

The decision is a blow to Democratic efforts to boost turnout in the Nov. 3 election. Attorneys from the international law firm Perkins Coie filed the suit on behalf of Priorities USA, whose political arm is supporting Joe Biden’s campaign, and other voter advocacy groups.

The 125-year-old Michigan law, which critics say is the only one of its kind left in the country, prohibits groups or individuals from hiring a “carriage or other conveyance” to bring able-bodied voters to Michigan polling places.

In today’s terms, that means groups can’t pay for cars or buses to take voters to their precincts, and Thursday’s ruling means companies like Uber or Lyft may not be able to provide free rides on Election Day. 

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis, appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, had suspended enforcement of the law in September, finding that it conflicts with federal law giving groups and individuals the right to fund transportation to the polls.

Boggs and Cook disagreed.


The ban on paid voter transportation “is assuredly aimed at preventing a kind of voter fraud known as ‘votehauling,’” they wrote. “Vote-hauling can be a classic form of bribery — paying a voter to ‘haul’ himself or herself (and maybe immediate or extended family) to the polls.”

It’s the second time in a week that courts have ruled against Democrats on Michigan voting matters. Friday, a state Court of Appeals panel ruled that absentee ballots must arrive at clerks’ offices by Nov. 3 to be counted, overturning a ruling that gave up to 14 days to process postmarked ballots delayed in the mail. 

It’s not immediately clear what the latest ruling will mean for voter turnout efforts in Michigan. 

This week, the Restaurant Opportunities Center launched an initiative to provide free rides to voters across the state through Election Day.

The group said it was partnering with transportation companies including the Detroit Bus Company to transport voters in Detroit, Flint, Ypsilanti, Benton Harbor, Lansing, Southfield, Highland Park, Pontiac, Hamtramck, and Saginaw.

Organizers were not immediately available for comment. 

Boggs, in his majority opinion, noted the ruling does not prohibit volunteers from driving voters to the polls for free. Campaign workers who are not paid specifically to take voters to the polls might also fall outside the ban, he wrote. Likewise, he said it may still be possible to transport voters in cars rented by campaigns for general purposes, not specifically to haul voters. 

“So the organizations’ resources will likely not go to waste,” Boggs wrote. “And with the expansion of mailed ballots in Michigan this year, there are likely fewer voters who need to be driven to the polls at all.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, was the named defendant in the original lawsuit but did not appeal a district court ruling that suspended the law. Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature did so instead after intervening in the case. 

Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil called the ruling “extremely disappointing, and one that will “actively disenfranchise Americans.”

He did not commit to further legal action but in a statement said that Priorities USA is “exploring next steps to determine what would be best for the voters in Michigan.”

“It is shameful that the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature continues to waste public resources in support of their blatantly political goals to prevent their constituents from accessing the ballot,” Cecil said.

Spokespersons for state House and Senate Republicans did respond to requests for comment on the court ruling. Nessel spokesperson Ryan Jarvi said the attorney general’s office is “still reviewing the court’s decision.”

In a sharp dissent, Judge Ransey Guy Cole criticized the majority opinion, which he said was based on the unproven assumption the paid transportation ban will deter fraud. 

“Plaintiffs want to rent buses to help people get to the polls; companies like Uber want to provide discounted rides to the polls in Michigan as they have in every other state,” wrote Cole, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. 

“These prohibited activities are a far cry from the majority’s specter of vote-hauling.”

Cole also argued the Legislature did not have standing to intervene in the case because it was asserting an interest in “enforcing” the ban, and enforcement is Nessel’s domain. 

“No court has ever extended such a sweeping invitation to Legislatures to call upon the powers of the courts without suffering an injury,” wrote Cole.

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Thu, 10/22/2020 - 11:49am

That's great, but what about the 30,000 more ballots than people in Detroit? Who is investigating that? There are 8 states that have more ballots than people registered to vote...

Robert Balwinski
Fri, 10/23/2020 - 10:47am

Could we have some citations where one can read about the 30,000 more ballots than people in Detroit? How about citations stating that 8 states have more ballots than registered voters?
To just make these statements without citations to back them up is propaganda and not factual data.

Kirt Harrington
Thu, 10/22/2020 - 12:13pm

Where is the proof of this "voter hauling" causing increased voter fraud! Potential fraud is not the same as actual fraud, right justices?

Robert Honeyman
Thu, 10/22/2020 - 1:12pm

Give props to the QOP for unearthing an archaic law and for packing the court with toadies happy to ignore the intent of the law and vote to enforce. My question is, against whom? Nessel was the defendant, but she's not subsidizing rides. Has the court ordered her to enforce a law that no longer has merit? And then, where's the QOP's standing? How were they even able to file?


Paul Jordan
Fri, 10/23/2020 - 10:58am

How is this ban NOT a violation of the First Amendment's protections of freedom of association and speech?

Jake K
Fri, 10/23/2020 - 3:09pm

Too bad we have outside interests like Priorities USA interfering in our election process. Same thoughts about the $$ millions being spent by non-MI entities trying to influence our citizenry. Let’s face it folks, no one is going to ask how you got to the polls, whether by Uber, bus, neighbor, friend or taxi. This story didn’t even have to be written except that it gave the author an opportunity to speak negatively about the two judges who supported the current law. Another anti-GOP portrayal.

Elsie Anne
Sat, 10/24/2020 - 10:53pm

Wait... so offering free or reduced-cost rides to the polls is the same as buying votes?
Typical right-wing stretch of reality. But stretching reality to spooky levels is all the GOP has to work with.
Fortunately, it probably won't make the difference. Due to our recently-passed "no reason" absent voter option, combined with early voting and unpaid volunteers who offer rides to the polls, most people will probably be able to vote in spite of these efforts at voter suppression. Hopefully, we are permanently past the days when the outcome of a Michigan election depended on whether it rained in Detroit on election day.