Every Wednesday for the past several weeks, Republicans in the state Senate Elections Committee have held hearings on parts of a 39-bill package to restrict voters’ access to the ballot box in line with similar GOP moves across the country.
Ever since, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has been ringing the alarm bell. Partisan attempts to dismantle voting rights should be an urgent priority for anyone who cares about democracy, she warns. The committee is scheduled today to finalize the package of bills for full Senate consideration.
Benson is warning that Republican lawmakers want to suppress voting on the heels of record turnout in 2020 – contradicting the will of Michigan voters who overwhelmingly approved expansion of access in 2018 – and they’re planning to use undemocratic means to bypass an expected veto by the governor.
The entire plan is based on lies about the 2020 election that have been thoroughly and repeatedly disproven. “It is un-American and an affront to every voter in the state,” Benson said at a virtual press conference.
Aspects of the measures under consideration in Michigan are more restrictive than Georgia’s controversial recent rollback of voting rights.
“Several of them harm, complicate, confuse, or restrict Michiganders’ hard-fought freedom to vote,” Benson said in testimony submitted to the Elections Committee last month. “They do not reflect the values, wants, or needs of our clerks, our citizens, our business leaders, or our state, and many seek to codify myths and misinformation into our election law.”
For example, the law in Georgia requires voters to include a driver’s license number on the application for an absentee ballot. In Michigan, the voter would be required to attach a copy of the driver’s license – a change that “serves no other purpose than to make it harder for them to vote absentee,” Benson said.
“There’s no evidence or data or even precedent to suggest that that somehow would prevent voter fraud.”
Election experts from both sides of the political aisle agree that requiring a driver’s license to vote and demanding photocopies disproportionately affects people who are poor or disabled or otherwise find it harder to afford or access the state-issued identification.
One of the bills in Michigan would make it illegal for the secretary of state to send voters an unsolicited application to vote by mail or even to send a link to access the application on a state government website.
Other bills would ban prepaid postage on return envelopes for absentee ballots; allow partisan players on county boards to restrict the number and/or location of ballot drop-boxes; and close the drop-boxes at 5 p.m. on the day before an election. Learn more.
A leaked video revealed the conservative dark money groups behind the raft of voter suppression legislation across the country. A battle is on for the future of our democracy, Benson said in remarks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s 2021 Legacy Event earlier this month.
“We need everyone stepping up to ensure the right to vote is protected,” she said. “We’ve long fought for and worked to ensure that the right to vote is realized for every citizen… while democracy deniers are hard at work trying to change the rules in Michigan.”
Voter suppression efforts nationwide are built on former president Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was “rigged” and he actually won – a baseless claim repudiated in dozens of court cases yet still asserted by Republican officeholders across the country – which led to violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January.
“Demand all leaders to tell the truth about our elections and about the safety and security of the voting process in 2020,” Benson urged. “We shouldn’t legislate off of a big lie. We should legislate and produce election reforms based on data and facts and what voters want.”
This is a “moral moment” in America, agreed U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia), who joined Benson at the event in appealing for activism.
The move to restrict voting rights in Georgia was a thinly veiled reaction to narrow Democratic wins in the longtime GOP-leaning state last November. In addition to President Joe Biden’s victory in the General Election in Georgia, Warnoff won one of two runoff elections that turned two U.S. Senate seats blue.
“Georgia stood up and did the unthinkable, elected its first Black senator, its first Jewish senator,” Warnock said. “In response to the swell in democratic participation, politicians and state legislatures across the country responded not in celebration but in retaliation… It is an assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era.”
Just 15 years ago, Warnock noted, the U.S. Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when a Republican was president, with a unanimous bipartisan vote of 98-0 in the U.S. Senate.
“Voting rights was a bipartisan issue in 2006,” he said. “Shouldn’t it be bipartisan in 2021 also? Voting rights should always be bipartisan. It’s not about right and left; it’s about right and wrong.”
In Michigan – as in Georgia – major businesses based in the state are pushing back against restricting access to the ballot box, including General Motors and Ford.
Voters have already had their say on the issue. By a 67-33 margin, Michigan voters approved Proposal 3 in 2018 to allow no-reason absentee voting and same-day voter registration, among other sweeping changes to make voting easier and more secure.
However, Republican leaders in the House and Senate plan to subvert the voters’ will by employing a mechanism in the state Constitution to get around a veto by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The ploy would allow them to launch a petition drive, and pass the measures in the Legislature (without the governor’s signature) after gathering just 340,000 signatures from Michigan’s 7.5 million registered voters.
The Republican majority’s proposed changes to voting rights in Michigan also come as an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission for the first time is drawing legislative and Congressional district boundaries – a move voters made in 2018 to stop the political parties from drawing lines to their advantage.
The commission is currently holding public hearings on the maps and taking public comment online. For the past 20 years, the GOP has controlled redistricting under the old system – and Michigan has been found to have among the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.
“This is democracy in reverse,” Warnock said. “In our democracy, the people pick the politicians. The politicians don’t get to cherry pick their voters, but that’s exactly what they’re trying to do in Georgia and Michigan and other states across the country. Politicians are behaving as if the democracy belongs to them and not the people.
“What I like about America is that once the people have heard an argument and each side gets to make its case, the four most powerful words in our democracy are ‘The people have spoken.’ We have to make sure at the end of the day that it’s the people who get to speak in our elections.”