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Bridge Michigan
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Whitmer, Benson, Nessel: Democracy at stake in Michigan’s fall elections

Attorney General Dana Nessel, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson appear before the Michigan Democratic Party faithful on Saturday at Huntington Place in Detroit. (Bridge photo by Yue Stella Yu)

DETROIT — Michigan’s three top Democratic officials pledged that preserving voting rights will be a cornerstone of their re-election campaigns this year.

Addressing the faithful during the party’s annual convention Saturday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson lambasted what they called Republican efforts to weaken democracy.

Whitmer described herself as “the last line of defense.”

“Every single week, it is clear how much is at stake in this election,” said Whitmer, who last week vetoed legislation aimed to clean up voter rolls. The bills, which followed the recommendations in a 2019 state audit, would have required voters with unknown birth dates or have not voted for a long time to go through a verification process.

“Efforts to pull our state backward by restricting the right to choose and weakening our democracy, I will use that veto pen every time,” Whitmer told the convention crowd at the Huntington Place in downtown Detroit.

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Benson and Nessel were endorsed by the state party at the convention on Saturday for second terms. While Whitmer is also on the ballot in November, she won’t be nominated until the August primary.

On Saturday, the party also selected a slate of candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court, the state Board of Education and university boards of trustees. (See list below)

The convention came one day after a jury failed to convict anyone in what prosecutors claimed was a plot to kidnap Whitmer in 2020. After a four-week trial, jurors acquitted two defendants, and a judge declared a mistrial when they were deadlocked on charges against two other men.

“I’ve often been asked, why the heck do I want to keep doing this job? And after yesterday, I’m sure we all have asked that question once or twice.” Whitmer told attendees during her six-minute speech.

“Tough times call for tough people.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer didn't directly address a jury's decision on Friday not to convict anyone following a four-week trial of men accused of conspiring to kidnap her, but she said "tough times call for tough people." (Bridge photo by Yue Stella Yu)

In Lansing and state capitals across the country, Democrats and Republicans are at odds over efforts to change election laws and voting access, following the 2020 election. Whitmer has shot down waves of GOP-backed legislation to tighten election rules

The Michigan Republican Party is backing a petition proposal, Secure MI Vote, that would require voter ID, toughen access to absentee ballots, ban private funding for elections and forbid the Secretary of State office from mailing unsolicited ballot applications.

Democrats are working to expand voting access through various petition groups, including Promote the Vote 2022, Empower MI Vote, Protect MI Vote and MI Right to Vote.

Speaking to delegates, Benson said she’s made voting easier and more accessible. She defended her decision in 2020 to mail millions of absentee ballot applications — a move deemed legal by a judge but criticized by Republicans as a potential security issue.

“We did it because it was important in that moment, in 2020, when everything was changing in the midst of this pandemic,” Benson told Bridge Michigan. “I want to give citizens the confidence and clarity that they have the options to vote safely and securely.”

“We have shown that responsive, effective government is possible, and we’ve got even more plans ahead to continue modernizing how we serve our citizens.”

Benson told Bridge Michigan the biggest challenge ahead is the disinformation surrounding Michigan’s election process. All three GOP candidates for Secretary of State have said  the 2020 presidential election was stolen in Michigan, despite numerous audits and investigations confirming President Joe Biden’s victory.

“We are fighting an escalating nationally coordinated attack on the future of American democracy, in which Michigan is ground zero,” she told the audience. “Right now, a national network of conspiracy theorists and election deniers are trying to take away the voting rights that you, and citizens all across Michigan, enshrined in our state Constitution in 2018.”

“It is not hyperbolic to say that the future of our democracy is on the ballot this fall,” she told Bridge.

Attorney General Dana Nessel touted her efforts to launch an investigation, at the request of the state’s GOP-led Senate Oversight committee, into those who spread false information about the 2020 election "to raise money or publicity for their own ends."

“We charged people who intentionally spread misinformation and disinformation about the election,” she told the crowd. “We sued the United States Postal Services for slowing down the mailing of absentee ballots.” 

Nessel also said in January her office had enough evidence to charge 16 Michigan Republicans who submitted a certificate falsely claiming Donald Trump had won the 2020 election. 

The governor on Saturday also touted her lawsuit this week asking the state Supreme Court to assert the right to abortion in Michigan in advance of an expected U.S. Supreme Court decision this year on Roe v. Wade. 

Michigan is one of a handful of states nationwide with laws on the books criminalizing abortion that predate the 1973 Roe decision, which made the procedure legal nationwide.

Democrats also approved 20 symbolic resolutions on number of issues, including changing no-fault insurance, preventing farm monopolies, protecting Native American burial sites and calling for the removal of a monument to Gen. George Custer in Monroe.

Members of the 13th Congressional District centered in Detroit voted against all the resolutions in protest of the party's decision not to consider a resolution opposing new legislative districts that reduce the number of majority-minority districts.

In a statement, Michigan GOP spokesperson Gustavo Portela slammed Democrats for "focus(ing) on cancel culture instead of addressing the issues affecting Michiganders today like addressing the needs of parents whose children have been affected negatively by Gretchen Whitmer's lockdowns or putting forward a plan to help reduce the economic burden of Democrat inflation that continued to hit working class families hard across the board."

Michigan Democrats on Saturday also endorsed:

  • Justice Richard Bernstein for a second term for Michigan Supreme Court; 
  • Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden, D-Southfield, for a first term for Michigan Supreme Court;
  • Pamela Pugh, Michigan State Board of Education vice president, for a second term;
  • Mitchell Robinson, an educator with more than 40 years of teaching experience, for a first term on the state Board of Education;
  • Renee Knake Jefferson for a second term on the Michigan University Board of Trustees;
  • Dennis Denno, former communications director for Michigan Democratic Party, for a first term on the Michigan University Board of Trustees;
  • Kathy White and Mike Behm for re-election onto the University of Michigan board;
  • Marilyn Kelly (second term) and Danielle Atkinson (first term) for the Wayne State University board.

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