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Michigan House GOP tries election reform again, despite likely veto by Whitmer

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Michigan Republicans legislators say the state needs to crack down on election fraud; Michigan Democrat legislators say those efforts are thinly veiled attempts to suppress the vote. (Shutterstock)

LANSING—Michigan House Republicans are again pushing for election reform measures rejected by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October — even though the proposals will likely be vetoed once more. 

House lawmakers on Thursday approved a series of proposals that would tighten voting rules and restrict ballot access. The measures would limit absentee ballot mailings, require physical signatures on absentee ballot applications, bar outside funding for elections, expand poll watchers’ access and subject poll workers’ party affiliation to public inspection.

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The package — similar to measures already vetoed by Whitmer last year — will almost certainly fail. 

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“Michigan has robust election protections in place, including strong, effective voter ID laws, that work as evidenced by the fact that we just had the most secure, accessible, high turnout election in our state’s history,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said in a statement to Bridge Michigan on Thursday.

The introduction of such measures is part of a broader campaign to reshape election administration processes by GOP lawmakers in legislatures across the country — a wave of efforts amplified by the unsubstantiated claims that massive voter fraud undermined the 2020 election. In Michigan, more than 250 post-election audits by local officials have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and a recent review by the state auditor general’s office found more than 99.9 percent of all ballots in the 2020 election were properly cast and counted.

Nevertheless, efforts to seek stricter election rules have continued to gain steam. A pair of Republicans have won primaries after echoing false claims of widespread voter fraud. A conservative petition group, Secure MI Vote, hopes to gather enough signatures to adopt legislation tightening voting regulations without the governor’s approval.

Liberal groups, on the other hand, have attacked the efforts as voter suppression. A coalition of groups have launched Promote the Vote 2022 — a ballot committee seeking a constitutional amendment to expand voter access and ease voting restrictions. 

Republican lawmakers touted the legislative package Thursday as ways to enhance public trust in the state’s election administration process. 

“Free, fair and secure elections are the foundation of our democratic republic,” said Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, sponsor of a bill that would require poll workers to attest to their political party affiliations. “My (bill) will further increase voter confidence with improved transparency regarding election workers.”

But several Democrats argued the measures would disenfranchise voters of color and make it harder to vote for elderly citizens and those with disabilities.

“These bills are just modern-day voter suppression and interfere with one of the most fundamental rights of our democracy — their right to vote,” said Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac, on the House floor Thursday.

The bills also received opposition from Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office. Opponents of the measures have argued the bills could mean more workload on local clerks, according to a House fiscal analysis of one measure.

Benson spokesperson Tracy Wimmer told Bridge Michigan the bills are “rooted in misinformation” and demonstrate “how completely out of touch many House members are with the real needs of those on the ground administering our elections.” 

“It’s time for Michigan’s legislative leaders to stop using their bills as vehicles to further conspiracy theories, and instead listen to the experts on how to truly strengthen and increase accessibility for our elections,” Wimmer said in a Thursday statement.

What would each bill do?

House Bill 5288, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Beeler, R-Fort Gratiot, would require those who wish to vote absentee to physically sign their ballot applications instead of offering electronic signatures. It would also allow voters to apply for absentee ballots in person, by mail, email or fax. The absentee ballot application would not be made available under this bill more than 75 days ahead of an election. There is no limit on when ballots can be sent out under the current law. 

The proposal echoes Republican opposition to a rule by Benson’s office that allows voters to apply for absentee ballots online. Rep. Steve Carra, a Three Rivers Republican and House majority vice chair of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, said in a statement last week the practice “undermine(s) election integrity by manipulating our rigorous signature matching laws.” 

Benson’s office has rejected multiple rule changes recommended by the legislative committee on administrative rules, stating the Republican-backed proposals would “restrict voting rights.”

“I will not let a small group of partisan legislators restrict those rights to spread and codify long debunked conspiracy theories and lies," Benson said in a statement last week. "The rules we submitted are based on facts, data and longstanding nonpartisan standard election administration practices that support Michigan voters."

House Bill 4876, sponsored by Alexander, would require poll workers to disclose to the public their political party affiliations, which they currently disclose on their applications for the position submitted to local clerks. The bill would require applicants to attest to their party affiliations and make that information available to local political party chairs and the public.  

Opponents argue the bill could burden local clerks, who would have to parse through attestations, distribute applicant information to local party chairs and respond to related inquiries, according to the fiscal analysis of the bill. But supporters of the measure argue it is important to have poll workers from both parties and the work could “easily be absorbed into the work that clerks already do.”

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House Bill 4897, carried by Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, would allow party committees, organizations or “interested citizens” to appoint additional poll watchers at stations where absentee ballots are processed and at local clerks’ offices at any given time during an election day. Political candidates, who are not currently allowed to serve as poll watchers, would be allowed to do so as long as it’s outside the jurisdiction they run in.

House Bill 5268, also sponsored by Calley, would prohibit a local clerk’s office from sending out absentee ballots unless they had been requested by email, mail, fax or in person. The bill would ban the Secretary of State’s office from giving out absentee ballots. Currently, the law leaves it to the discretion of clerks to send out unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

House Bill 5253, by Rep. Sarah Lightner, R-Springport, would prohibit the Secretary of State and local election officials from accepting any election-related equipment as gifts. That would include tabulators, voting booths, and absent voter ballot drop boxes.

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