Michigan is emerging as the latest battleground in Republicans’ nationwide push to restrict voting rights, with GOP officials planning to end-run Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s all-but-certain veto of proposed restrictions and progressives beginning to mobilize to stop them.
The GOP attempt to circumvent Whitmer relies on a quirk of Michigan law: If Republicans gather 340,000 signatures in a petition drive, the House and Senate can enact legislation without the governor having the power to veto it.
It’s the latest escalation in a years-long and increasingly ugly effort to undercut Whitmer and two other Democratic women who are statewide office-holders: Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, all of whom are up for reelection next year.
In a speech last week, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser – who laid out the plan to implement new voting restrictions in time for the 2022 election – called Whitmer, Benson and Nessel “three witches” and said Republicans must ensure “they are ready for burning at the stake.”
Preparations for a drawn-out battle over voting rights began after Republicans who control the state legislature in Michigan introduced a package of 39 bills under the guise of protecting the integrity of elections.
Their proposals are part of a national push by Republicans in key states – including Georgia, Arizona and Texas – to make voting more difficult after former President Donald Trump’s months of lies about the outcome of the 2020 election. The proposals in Michigan and elsewhere, election experts say, would have a disproportionate impact on Black voters and other voters of color.
“This is a part of the continuous strategic treachery and seditionist activity that Republicans are engaged in around the country,” said Rev. Wendell Anthony, the head of the Detroit Branch NAACP. “We knew it was coming. We knew what they were doing in Georgia is not unique. This is part of a national strategy they have to suppress the black and brown vote in this country.”
“They cannot abide losing – so they have concluded, if we cannot win, let us cheat. Let us go around them. Let us suppress them. Let us take their votes away. If we cannot add to our voting rolls, let us subtract from theirs – that’s what this is about,” Anthony said.
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Michigan Senate Republican leader Mike Shirkey tweeted that the proposed legislation is aimed at “making it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”
But many of the proposals would, in fact, make it harder to vote. Among the proposals are requirements that voters submit IDs or only be allowed to cast provisional ballots, restrictions on the hours that voters could drop their ballots into curbside drop-boxes and a prohibition on Michigan’s secretary of state from mailing all of the state’s registered voters forms to request absentee ballots.
Those requesting mail-in ballots would have to include a copy of their photo identification in the request. And county clerks would be barred from including return postage on mail-in ballots.
In the 2020 election, Benson’s office mailed all voters absentee ballot request forms. And those who did not have IDs could vote by submitting affidavits attesting to their identities. “Rather than introducing bills based on disproven lies and copied from other states, lawmakers should be codifying what worked in 2020,” Benson said in a statement last week.
Whitmer’s office has already made clear that the governor would veto legislation that restricts voting access. So Republicans say they will go around her.
“If it’s not signed by the governor, then we have other plans to make sure that it becomes law before 2022,” Weiser told the North Oakland Republican Club on Thursday, in a speech posted online and reported by The Detroit News and other Michigan outlets. “That plan includes taking that legislation and getting the signatures necessary for a legislative initiative so it can become law without Gretchen Whitmer’s signature.”
How petition drives work
Strategizing around petition drives is a tactic Republicans have used before. In Michigan, petition drives offer the legislature two options: Enact what’s being requested, or do nothing and allow the measure to be placed on the ballot in November.
Petition drive measures enacted by popular vote are difficult to reverse, but those adopted by the legislature can later be changed with simple majority votes. That’s what Republicans did in 2018: The GOP-dominated legislature preempted ballot measures to raise the minimum wage and guarantee paid sick leave by approving them in September – and then gutted those same measures in a lame-duck session after the November election.
Democrats and progressive groups say they are currently exploring several options to block Republicans from using a signature drive to enact the new voting restrictions, including a massive campaign urging voters not to sign the petition; a counter-petition that would allow voters to undo the measures through a statewide referendum that wouldn’t need the legislature’s support; and a legal battle that progressives say they might be able to win thanks to a 2018 constitutional amendment that expanded voting access.
“It’s early in the game, so I can’t pinpoint which strategy is going to be employed – it may be a combination of all of them. The point is, we’re not going to sit idly by and let them take our vote away,” said Anthony, the Detroit Branch NAACP head.
Though progressives said they intend to try to stop Republicans from gathering the necessary signatures, they also admitted it would be difficult to stop a well-funded and organized effort to do so – especially because the GOP base is now demanding restrictive new voting laws.
“In past, voter suppression hasn’t been driven by constituents. It’s been a tactic by certain politicians,” said ACLU of Michigan policy strategist Merissa Kovach.
“We would have to do a great deal of education to make sure folks understand what that petition is and don’t sign it,” said Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “We will not allow this to go unchallenged.”
Barnes said that a counter-petition is “not something in my pile of things I’m thinking about,” but that – while it’s too soon to determine a legal strategy – a court fight could be coming.
A turnaround after years of expanding access
The Republican attempt to make it harder to vote in Michigan comes on the heels of years of Democratic efforts to expand voting access in one of the most important presidential swing states.
In 2018, Michigan voters by a two-to-one margin approved an amendment to the state’s constitution that guarantees its voters the right to cast ballots by mail without a reason, mandates same-day voter registration and more. The amendment also includes text specifying that the new rules “shall be liberally construed in favor of voters’ rights in order to effectuate its purposes.”
Then, in 2020, the Democratic-backed candidates won two state Supreme Court races – flipping Michigan’s high court to a 4-3 Democratic majority.
Legislative efforts to curtail voting rights have not yet been tested with the 2018 constitutional amendment enacted and the Democratic state Supreme Court majority in place. But Michigan Democrats and progressive groups that are closely monitoring the GOP’s legislative push say that – while it’s too soon to tell what proposals Republicans would incorporate in a signature drive and therefore what the specific legal strategy to oppose them would be – they believe the constitutional amendment could offer voters some protections from restrictive new laws.
“The idea that we now need to fight for something we just got in place again is frustrating,” Barnes said, “but we know it’s important.”