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Michigan GOP approves election reforms. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto is next.

Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will veto voter ID requirements approved by the Michigan Legislature. (Bridge file photo)

Oct. 29: Whitmer vetoes Michigan election bills as GOP petitions to bypass her

LANSING — Michigan Republicans attempting to tighten voting and election laws are about to get exactly what they want: A veto from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

The GOP-led Michigan House on Thursday gave final approval to a sweeping plan that would toughen identification rules for in-person voting, require absentee ballot applicants to include ID numbers and ban election officials from sending unsolicited applications, among other things.

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Democrats blasted the legislation as a form of "voter suppression" fueled by false fraud claims from former President Donald Trump. Whitmer has made clear she will veto the legislation, as she has already done with less controversial election reform bills. 

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Republicans, who championed the bills as a way to deter election fraud and rebuild trust among voters, know Whitmer will veto them. And they’ve welcomed that possibility as they ask voters to sign a petition designed to enact the proposed reforms into law without her signature. 

"I think it's a better argument for us that she does veto the legislation - that she is ignoring the will of the people," then-Michigan Republican Party Executive Director Jason Roe told reporters in June.

Roe is no longer with the state party, driven out by activists who claimed he was not loyal enough to Trump. But the GOP remains committed to the petition drive strategy that Chair Ron Weiser first unveiled in March as a way to circumvent a Whitmer veto. 

Organizers began collecting signatures for the Secure MI Vote initiative on Friday at an event hosted by the Livingston County Republican Party. The GOP will have "launch dates across the state of Michigan," state party co-chair Meshawn Maddock said last week. 

A veto will show GOP activists “that this is the way that we have to do it,” said Jamie Roe, a spokesperson for the Secure MI Vote initiative. “The Legislature on their own has tried to get this done, but this governor is not interested in anything that will secure the election.”

Michigan already has “robust election protections in place,” including an ID law for in-person voting, and Whitmer will veto any measure that seeks to “make it harder to vote, attempts to undermine trust in our government, or attacks voting rights,” her spokesperson, Bobby Leddy, confirmed Thursday.

The Michigan Constitution includes a unique provision that would allow the Republicans to go around Whitmer and enact new voting regulations if they are able to collect 340,047 valid signatures for initiated legislation. 

That’s about 8 percent of all voters who cast ballots in the 2018 election that Whitmer won with nearly 2.3 million votes. 

Democrats and voting rights groups are urging Michiganders to “decline to sign” the petition.

“We are heartened that our pro-voter governor is expected to stand up against this dangerous bill and prevent it from becoming law in the near future,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of the  Voters Not Politicians nonprofit. “But the GOP has made clear that they have a plan to go around normal democratic processes – and the voters – using the petition that is being circulated as we speak.” 

A ‘huge loophole’?

The legislation approved Thursday in a party-line House vote and now heading toward Whitmer’s desk mirrors major provisions of the Secure MI Vote initiative

Both would eliminate an affidavit option that allows in-person voters who either lack a picture ID or forget to bring one to the polls to still cast a regular ballot on Election Day by signing a statement under penalty of perjury and up to five years in prison.

And both would require voters applying for an absentee ballot to list their driver license, state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, in addition to their signature, which is how local election officials currently confirm the identity of an absentee voter. 

Election officials say voter impersonation is rare. And only 11,400 Michiganders voted in-person without an ID by signing an affidavit last year, which is about 0.2 percent of voters who cast ballots last year in an election Democratic President Joe Biden won by 154,188 votes.

But the affidavit option is a “huge loophole” that could allow fraudulent ballots, said state Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland. 

“You need an ID to do just about everything in life. This is not suppressing the vote,” he said.

Under the legislation, an in-person voter without ID or an absentee voter who does not list their ID number could still cast a provisional ballot. But it would only be counted if the voter returned to their local clerk’s office with an ID within six days after the election. 

Democrats suggested the absentee application provisions could make voters vulnerable to identity theft by mail, and they argued the overall package would disproportionately impact voters of color who are less likely to have a government ID. 

The proposal is “heinous, regressive, suppressive and discriminatory,” said state Rep. Amos O’Neal, D-Saginaw. “These bills chip away at the very foundation of our fundamental American rights.”

Some studies estimate as many as 13 percent of African-American residents nationwide lack a government-issued ID. Nationwide, an estimated 3 million Americans of all races lack ID, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The Republican legislation would provide free ID to anyone who wants one by waiving what is currently a $10 fee for a new or renewed ID, an option currently only available for low-income Michiganders that qualify for government assistance programs.

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has criticized the free ID bill because it does not propose any alternative funding to pay for the cost of ID production, which would leave her office with an estimated $2.5 million budget hole.

"To be clear, calling something a Free ID (which I’m all for) and then not allocating funding to enable the state to provide a Free ID (which we’d love to be able to do) is some of the most dishonest, cynical, fiscally irresponsible and just plain poor policymaking I’ve seen," Benson tweeted last week. 

Barriers to voting?

The legislation, like the Secure MI Vote initiative, would also prohibit state or local election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters, a step Benson and some municipal clerks took last year in an attempt to encourage voting during the pandemic. 

Supporters contend that applications sent to wrong addresses last year eroded trust in the election process, but a Republican-led Senate Oversight Committee report concluded there is no evidence it led to any actual fraud in the presidential contest. 

The package would also bar officials from accepting any funding or “in-kind contributions” for election-related activities from any individual or non-governmental entity. 

That would prohibit the kind of “COVID-19 response” grants awarded to 465 Michigan communities last year by a nonprofit partially funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose involvement triggered a debate over the use of private funding for public elections.

It would also bar election clerks from using free church space as polling locations or using election volunteers from groups like the League of Women Voters, which officials fear could lead to new costs or polling place consolidations. 

“It seems to me that this bill has become a vehicle for every piece of legislation to create barriers to voting that could be found,” said state Rep. Matt Koleszar of Plymouth, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections and Ethics Committee. 

Committee Chair Ann Bolin, a Brighton Republican and former elections clerk, denied the bills were advanced “because of a Big Lie” or to disenfranchise any voters.

“These bills will restore confidence in our elections,” she said Thursday. “Voters want to know their vote will count, and that they — and only they — are casting their own ballot.”

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