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Michigan Senate passes bill to tighten election ID, absentee ballot laws

captiol
‘The era of the Republican gerrymander is over,’ a leading Democrat declared after a citizen redistricting group approved Senate redistricting maps.

Oct. 14: Michigan GOP approves election reforms. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto is next.
Oct. 12: Michigan clerks: Read fine print of Secure MI Vote. It could ban volunteers.

LANSING—The Republican-led Michigan Senate passed a bill Wednesday that seeks to tighten voting ID and absentee voting laws in the state.

The controversial measure, SB303, requires, among other changes, that voters present a valid form of ID in order for their ballot to be counted on election day.

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Critics of the bill say this and other requirements are a form of voter suppression intended to hinder Democratic voters.

Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, responded Wednesday that requiring IDs is not “suppression” but “common sense.”

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“We're all familiar with a long list of everyday transactions and activities that require a photo ID … renting a car, buying a cell phone, drinking a beer, applying for state (financial) assistance,” Nesbitt said. 

Nesbitt and other Republicans also cited polls in Michigan and elsewhere that show strong public support for requiring IDs to vote.

Republicans amended the bill Wednesday morning — just minutes before a full House vote— to also add provisions that place limitations on election officials’ ability to send absentee ballot applications to voters unless they specifically request them.

The proposal now goes back to the Michigan House, also controlled by Republicans, for concurrence, and then to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who almost certainly will veto the measure. 

The bill passed Wednesday closely resembles a statewide petition that Republicans plan to adopt and pass through a quirk in Michigan law that would allow them to evade a Whitmer veto. 

The Senate bill passed Wednesday would:

  • Eliminate the option for voters to sign an affidavit in lieu of presenting a photo identification when they turn up to vote. Under the new proposal, voters would be given a provisional ballot to cast at their precinct, but in order for their vote to count, they would then have to present a photo ID, along with other requirements, at the clerk’s office within six days after the election.
  • Require those registering to vote to include the last four digits of their social security number. Currently, voters only have to provide a state, federal, or tribal photo ID card, if available.
  • Require voters applying for an absentee ballot to include in their application a state or federal ID number, last four digits of social security, or present a copy or original of their identification to the  clerk. Currently, applicants do not have to provide this information.
  • Bar election officials such as clerks, Secretary of State and others from accepting private funding for election-related activities such as registration drives. 

The bill would also ban the Secretary of State, clerks and other Michigan election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee voting applications. However, political parties and private entities would still be allowed to do so. 

That measure was added by Republicans upset that Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sent out ballot applications to registered voters across the state during the 2020 presidential election, citing in part the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID pandemic. 

“Our current Secretary of State spent over half of the federal CARES Act money provided to her office last year, which was intended to assist clerks with COVID-related expenses, to instead send unsolicited mailings including 7.7 million unsolicited unsolicited absentee ballot applications, contrary to existing practice in Michigan,” said Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly and former Michigan Secretary of State.  

“We're providing appropriate safeguards to protect the rights of voters.”

Meanwhile, the legislation does not include a provision that was added by the GOP House in June that would require in-person signature verification for voters.

Gov. Whitmer’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but a veto is expected.

Whitmer and her office have said in the past that “any piece of legislation that seeks to take away a person’s right to vote or creates barriers to voting is a non-starter.”

Republicans were hoping to also pass a measure that would make state identification cards free to the public. But, in a confusing procedural move, Democrats motioned to adjourn for the day and were able to secure a majority thanks to some Republicans voting for it. 

That bill could be voted on as early as Thursday.

Overall, the voter ID proposal passed Wednesday in a party-line vote of 19 to 15, is similar to language on a ballot petition being put out by Republican-affiliated group Secure MI Vote. 

The group plans to collect at least 340,047 voter signatures to send its initiative to the state Legislature.

It is expected that the Republican majorities in both chambers will eventually enact them into law using a unique provision in the state constitution that allows the legislature to adopt an approved petition and avoid a governor’s veto.

Fred Wzsolek, a consultant for Secure MI Vote, celebrated the passing of the Senate bill Wednesday.

“If only the state had a governor who would come to the table behind such an effort,” Wzsolek told Bridge Michigan in a text message. “Lacking such a governor, citizens can veto Whitmer’s vetoes with their signatures.”

Critics of the bill — which is part of a 39-bill election package pushed by Republicans in the Senate — have said it amounts to voter suppression because it would disproportionately impact poor people and people of color, who are less likely to have a driver’s license or other forms of government identification.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 3 million Americans lack an ID.

According to an analysis in May by Bridge Michigan, cities with larger African-American populations had a higher number of votes cast through the use of a signed affidavit, an option the Senate bill would eliminate.

Overall, only .2 percent of voters in 2020 voted without an ID in Michigan.

Merissa Kovach, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Michigan, said in a tweet the proposals are in direct response to the 2020 presidential election results, which supporters of then-President Trump and many Republican officials continue to contest with unsupported claims of election fraud, including in Michigan.

“Let's call it what it is: a power grab designed to take away voting options on Election Day and hamstring election officials’ ability to administer elections and inform voters of their rights,” Kovach tweeted.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, called out Republicans for pushing for the bill they know Gov. Whitmer will veto.

“There's no goal here,” Hertel said. “It's just messaging points to talk to some people so that you have a Facebook post tomorrow.”

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