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.