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Whitmer vetoes Michigan election bills as GOP petitions to bypass her

Whitmer
(Gov Gretchen Whitmer on Friday vetoed Republican legislation to toughen Michigan voter ID laws and limit absentee ballot application mailings. Courtesy)

LANSING — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday followed through on her promise to veto legislation to tighten Michigan’s voter identification law, limit absentee ballot application mailings and bar private funding for election administration. 

But the fight is far from over, as Republicans circulate a petition for nearly identical legislation that would allow the GOP-led Legislature to circumvent the governor and change voting laws without her because of a unique provision in the Michigan Constitution.

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In a veto letter to lawmakers, Whitmer said a change isn’t necessary to Michigan’s voter ID law, which allows in-person voters who forget or do not have ID to vote after submitting an affidavit under penalty of perjury, punishable by up to five years in prison.

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"There is no evidence that use of affidavit ballots is related to voter fraud," Whitmer said. "Yet this voting restriction would disenfranchise the more than 18,000 voters who relied on the affidavit ballot in recent elections."

Whitmer said the bills could “disproportionately harm” communities of color. Studies have shown that as many as 13 percent of African-American voters lack government ID.

"Voting restrictions that produce such a racially disparate impact must never become law in this state," she said. 

Republicans have called their effort an attempt to make it “easier to vote but harder to cheat.” They argue the legislation is necessary not because of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud, but because of no-reason absentee voting, same day registration and other election rights voters added to the state constitution in 2018. 

“Proposal 3 made changes that weakened the integrity of our election system by allowing people to register and vote without ever being seen in-person,” Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican and former Secretary of State, said in a statement criticizing Whitmer’s veto.

“It also allows people to register and vote on Election Day without showing an ID and with no real-time system to check if they are eligible or have voted in another location. In the November 2020 election, over 20,000 people registered to vote in the 14 days before or on Election Day without presenting a Michigan driver’s license or personal identification card.”

The legislation Whitmer vetoed, like the Secure MI Vote initiative, would:

  • Eliminate an affidavit option for in-person voters who forget or lack ID to cast an Election Day ballot by signing a statement of identity under penalty of perjury, which is punishable by up to five years in prison. 
  • Require absentee ballot applicants to mail their driver license number, state ID number or the last four digits of their social security number to their local clerk — or present ID in person.
  • Allow in-person or absentee voters without ID to cast a "provisional ballot" that would not be counted on Election Day but could still be counted if they returned to their clerk's office with ID within six days.  
  • Prohibit state or local election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters who had not first requested one. 
  • Bar state or local election officials from accepting any private funds, in-kind contributions, either directly or indirectly, to aid election administration. 
  • Waive the $10 fee for state ID cards, which under current law can only be waived for low-income residents who qualify for government assistance programs. The legislation does not include any funding to cover what is now a $2.5 million annual cost. 

Whitmer, in her veto letter, encouraged lawmakers to pass reforms that would "strengthen our democracy" by improving military access to the ballot, creating a permanent absent voter list and giving clerks more time to preprocess absentee ballots to avoid counting delays.

Civil rights and voting rights groups had urged Whitmer to veto the voter ID bills, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It told the governor in an Oct. 26 letter the legislation would impose unnecessary and "onerous restrictions" on the right to vote, especially among Black residents less likely to have “the specified identification or the underlying documents necessary to obtain it.”

Whitmer’s veto kills the legislation, for now. 

Using a provision of the Michigan Constitution that prohibits the governor from vetoing legislation initiated by petition drive, Republicans are circulating petitions from the Secure MI Vote initiative.

Organizers will need to collect 340,047 valid voter signatures within 180 days to send the measure back to the GOP-led Legislature for likely approval. That’s about 8 percent of all voters who cast ballots in the 2018 election that Whitmer won with nearly 2.3 million votes.

The group aims to collect at least 500,000 signatures, according to spokesperson Jamie Roe, who called the initiative a “common sense” plan for reform. 

 “Our work is just getting started,” he said this month.

Democrats and voting rights groups are urging voters to “decline to sign” the petition, which they’ve called an “anti-voter” plan. They’ve also floated the potential for lawsuits or a future ballot proposal of their own.

Election officials, including some Republicans, have criticized the ID provisions as a solution in search of a problem because voter impersonation is almost non-existent in Michigan.

A Bridge Michigan analysis found that voting with ID is also incredibly rare: Only 11,417 out of 5,579.317 voters used the affidavit option to cast a ballot without ID last year, about 0.2 percent. Democratic President Joe Biden the state by 154,188 votes.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took an unprecedented step last year by mailing absentee ballot applications to any voter whose local clerk had not already sent them one.

Michigan courts ruled the first-term Democrat had the authority to mail the applications, and supporters say the move likely contributed to record turnout in the presidential election. But Republicans argued it introduced potential fraud into the system because some applications were sent to addresses where the registered voter no longer lived.

Likewise, Republicans have sought to crack down on unprecedented private grant funding that helped Michigan clerks' administer the 2020 contest. The Center for Tech and Civic Life, funded in part by $350 million from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, awarded millions of dollars in COVID-19 response grants to 465 Michigan cities.

As Bridge reported, CTCL sent grants to Republican and Democratic clerks alike upon request. But big cities like the Democratic stronghold of Detroit qualified for the biggest grants, fueling disputed GOP claims the funding was steered for political purposes.

The Secure MI Vote initiative, like the legislation Whitmer vetoed Friday, would prohibit those kinds of grants. As Bridge reported, the initiative would also bar clerks from using free church space as polling locations or using volunteers from non-partisan groups like the League of Women Voters, which officials fear would increase election administration costs and potentially force polling place consolidation, limiting options for voters.

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