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Dark money, donors like Steven Spielberg fuel Michigan voting rights fight

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Big out-of-state donors and dark money interest groups are predominantly fueling two competition petition drives over Michigan voting access. (Shutterstock)

LANSING – Dark money groups and out-of-state donors are funding a high-stakes fight over Michigan voting laws, the latest proxy battle in a national war that follows former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims about the 2020 election.

Aiding one side is the Michigan Guardians of Democracy, a newly formed nonprofit that is not required to disclose donors and has spent nearly $1.4 million in cash and resources on Secure MI Vote, a Republican effort to tighten voter ID and absentee ballot rules, according to disclosure reports filed this week.

Sponsor

Helping the other side is The Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal dark money powerhouse that has given $2.5 million to a group fighting the GOP initiative and another $700,000 to a new Promote the Vote committee seeking to expand voting rights in the Michigan Constitution.

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The Sixteen Thirty Fund, based in Washington D.C., is among more than 300 out-of-state donors helping support Promote the Vote’s new petition drive, including California movie director Steven Spielberg, who sent the committee $125,000, according to the group’s first campaign finance report.

Dark money and outside donors are increasingly influencing Michigan politics, particularly on issues like voting rights, which are part of a broader national debate, said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

“We view ballot initiative and citizen referendums as sort of a tool of direct democracy, rather than sort of a republican form of government,” Schuster told Bridge Michigan. “And if the forces that are behind these initiatives are completely hiding their sources of monetary support, I think voters should ask themselves whether that dilutes the spirit.”

Asked about its dark money and out-of-state funding, Promote the Vote responded with a general statement touting smaller donors. The vast majority of the ballot committee’s contributions came from individuals who gave $500 or less, said executive director Micheal Davis.

The funding puts the campaign "in a strong position to place this important proposal on the November 2022 ballot and communicate our message that every eligible voter should have their vote counted without intimidation or political interference," Davis added.

Fred Wszolek, a Republican strategist working on the Secure MI Vote petition and two other GOP initiatives, said it’s understandable — and legal — for donors to use nonprofits to shield their contributions from the public eye, particularly on charged political issues. 

Donors could get “hate mail and death threats” if contributions become public, he said. 

“The First Amendment allows people to give money to nonprofits, and those nonprofits can do this. I think that's going to be the shape of all of these (ballot) campaigns,” Wszolek said.

He contended it’s not worth “whining” about out-of-state donors helping fund Michigan petition drives.

"Everything's getting nationalized," he said. "You might think, philosophically, it's not a great thing, but there's nothing anybody can do about it."

The GOP push to tighten voting laws

Indeed, dark money groups are already feuling multiple petition drives in the state.

Michigan Guardians of Democracy, for instance, has also donated nearly $800,000 to Unlock Michigan's campaign to limit the duration of pandemic public health orders, and $100,000 to a GOP initiative, Let MI Kids Learn, that would create a voucher-like school scholarship program for Michigan families. 

But the group’s largest contributions have gone to Secure MI Vote, which aims to send voting reforms to MIchigan’s GOP-led Legislature, which could enact the initiative with a majority vote and circumvent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who already vetoed nearly identical bills.

The Secure MI Vote initiative, also partially funded by Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser, would require ID to vote, eliminating an opportunity for in-person voters to sign an affidavit of identity if they forget or lack an ID. That’s an option about 11,400 voters used in 2020. 

The proposal could make it more difficult to vote by absentee ballot by prohibiting election officials from mailing unsolicited applications and requiring voters to fill out additional information on applications, including their ID number or partial Social Security number, every time they apply to vote absentee.

The measure also would prohibit clerks from accepting outside grant funding to help administer elections. 

Secure MI Vote needs to collect 340,047 valid voter signatures to advance the initiative to the GOP-led Legislature for likely enactment. The group failed to reach its goal of 500,000 signatures within an initial 180-day window but can collect until June 1 if it tosses out earlier petitions.

Michigan Guardians of Democracy, the top contributor to Secure MI Vote, is not legally required to disclose its donors and has no intention of doing so, said nonprofit board president Heather Lombardini.  

"We've had well over 100 donors, and they range from $5 to major donors," she said. 

Lombardini is a conservatve fundraiser who has also worked with Senate Republicans. But Guardians is not associated with the Senate GOP or Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, she told Bridge Michigan.

On its website, the nonprofit claims “VOTER FRAUD IS REAL” and must be stopped to make sure legal voters don’t “have their vote diluted by those with bad intentions.” In a recent fundraising pitch, the group solicited donations from “patriots who are committed to free and fair elections.”

Law enforcement authorities have filed charges in a handful of suspected voter fraud cases, but the GOP-led state Senate Oversight Committee that spent months investigating the 2020 presidential election concluded there was no evidence of widespread fraud. Democratic President Joe Biden won Michigan by 154,188 votes. 

Critics argue the Secure MI Vote initiative is a form of voter suppression that could disproportionately impact lower-income and minority voters less likely to have photo ID. 

Promote the Vote, the sequel

The Sixteen Thirty Fund, meanwhile, is a major liberal donor, spending more than $410 million nationwide to elect Democrats, conduct voter registration drives and fund ballot measures in numerous states, according to Politico.

In addition to Promote the Vote and Protect MI Vote, the D.C.-based nonprofit this year has given nearly $1 million in money and services to Michiganders For Fair Lending, which aims to cap interest rates for payday loans.

Promote the Vote’s 2022 ballot drive is a sequel to its successful 2018 proposal that wrote no-reason absentee voting and other rights into the Michigan Constitution. 

The new petition would again amend the state constitution to enshrine the affidavit option for voters without an ID, allow nine days of early voting, subsidize a tracking system for absentee ballots and require one absentee ballot drop box for every 15,000 voters, among other things. 

The potential ballot proposal “will enhance the integrity and security of our elections by modernizing how we administer elections” and “make our elections more accessible and convenient,” said Davis, Promote the Vote’s executive director. 

Sponsor

“We are grateful for all our volunteers, supporters and donors who have joined our effort to protect the fundamental right to vote and ensure every vote is counted and every voice is heard no matter what political party or candidate we support, where we live or what we look like,” he said. 

Promote the Vote, which would essentially overturn the Secure MI Vote initiative, raised $2.5 million in less than three months. 

While backers include the ACLU of Michigan and the Michigan chapter of the League of Women Voters, the bulk of the funding is coming from out of state. 

In addition to the Sixteen Thirty Fund and Spielberg, large donors include Lynn Schusterman, a billionaire philanthropist based in Oklahoma, who contributed $500,000. Silicon Valley organizer Karla Jurvetson and New York philanthropist Lisa Minsky-Primus gave $250,000 each.

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