The Michigan Republicans are keen to pass a blast that will curb the franchise in the main battlefield state – and they have a bold plan to put their ideas into practice despite grappling with a Democratic governor who could normally veto their bills.
The state legislature proposed 39 different bills targeting elections, including those restricting postal voting, one bill that could prevent the state from certifying elections, and two bills that would give ordinary election workers a simply extraordinary power to restrict would give the vote.
Until recently, Michigan seemed safe from the kind of anti-election legislation that has spread to GOP-controlled states like Georgia and Texas. The state has a Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who could veto laws aimed at moving future elections towards the Republican Party, and the GOP majorities in the state legislature are too small to veto override.
But earlier this month, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) announced that Republicans were planning a process that could allow them to circumvent the governor's veto and receive a package of "half a dozen" to pass election-related bills. According to the state constitution, a relatively small group of voters can petition to propose laws that can then be enacted by state law. This would allow the GOP-controlled legislature to pass the package by a simple majority in both houses, and Whitmer would be powerless to veto it – although Democrats could possibly force a referendum on the GOP package.
While it is not yet clear what proposals will be in Shirkey's half-dozen bills, some of the dozen of proposals from GOP lawmakers seem to serve no other purpose than to make the vote so burdensome that it deprives voters of the right to vote. For example, a couple of bills that passed the State House could force at least some voters to show their ID twice – once at their polling station and again to a district official in a central government office – or their ballot is thrown out.
The stakes in this fight are quite high, not only for the Michigandans and their state politics, but also for national politics. Michigan had one of the closest U.S. Senate races in the country in 2020 – a race that would have thrown control of the Senate to the GOP if Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) had done a little worse. It's also a major battlefield state, won by former President Donald Trump in 2016 and President Joe Biden in 2020. If Biden Michigan doesn't win in 2024, his path to re-election looks bleak.
While the ballot papers were still being tallied in the 2020 elections, hundreds of Trump supporters – some of them carried firearms – protested against the count in the Democratic stronghold of Detroit. Republican officials in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, briefly tried to block certification of vote counts in that county, though they eventually gave in. After Aaron Van Langevelde, a federal official on Michigan's Board of State Canvassers, voted to confirm Biden's victory across the state, Republicans removed him from the board.
Trump personally operated Republican officials in Michigan to block Biden's victory and even invited members of the state legislature to the White House, according to the Associated Press.
In other words, the new round of electoral legislation may disenfranchise few people, depending on which bills come into force and how they are applied. But they appear to be part of a broader effort to discredit Democratic-won elections, put a thumb on the election scale in Republican favor, and justify Trump's lie that he and not Biden won the 2020 election. And in this tightly divided state, even a small number of disenfranchised voters could vote.
So what's in the Michigan GOP billing package?
It is not yet clear which of the 39 state legislature bills Republicans want to move forward. These bills contain a wide range of proposals to make voting more difficult, including restricting the use of mailboxes to collect postal ballot papers, imposing stricter identification requirements on voters, empowering partisan election observers, and requiring a majority on district electoral boards to approve Confirm election results.
However, in a July 1 interview, Shirkey signaled that voter ID is likely to be part of the package, describing ID as "rock solid". Voter ID laws require voters to provide identification in order to vote. Republicans often defend these laws as necessary to prevent impersonation in elections, but numerous studies and research show that such fraud is virtually non-existent.
Still, they're generally popular proposals across the political spectrum – a recent poll shows that 80 percent of registered voters in the US support voter ID cards.
However, the leading proposal for a Michigan GOP voter ID card goes way beyond requiring voters to show ID only in the election. Two bills called SB 303 and SB 304 have already passed through the State House and they would effectively require an unknown number of voters to show their ID twice in two different locations to vote.
Under current law, Michigan voters who do not have ID can still vote if they sign an affidavit stating that they do not have such ID. SB 303 removes the ability for voters to sign such an affidavit and asks virtually all voters to produce ID. This is pretty much in line with other voter identification laws that have been passed or are under consideration in other states.
However, SB 303 also requires that every voter signs a form before they can vote. The signature on this form must be checked by an election officer and compared with "the digitized signature of the voter contained in the electronic ballot book". If the signatures do not match according to the subjective assessment of the election worker, the voter receives a provisional ballot.
Meanwhile, SB 304 determines what happens to these preliminary ballot papers. Essentially, a voter who receives such a ballot has six days to prove their identity and residence to the county or township clerk – something they can do by showing many of the same ID cards that they used in the elections must submit.
Read together, the two bills create an absurd situation in which some voters could be deprived of their right to vote unless they drive to the bureau's office to show the same ID card they gave the poll worker. For example, imagine that a voter shows their valid driver's license at the polls, but for some reason an election worker declares that the voter's signature does not match. The voter then has less than a week to make a special trip to the clerk's office to show the clerk the exact same driver's license.
It is not difficult to see how such a system could be abused. A Republican poll worker could randomly force voters in a democratic area to make the special trip to the clerk's office. Or that polling officer could use the race as a proxy to identify voters who are likely to be Democrats – maybe he just gives black voters temporary ballots.
Meanwhile, a third bill (this third bill was not passed by either House) requires local election officials to appoint one Republican election worker for every two Democrats in those roles. That could mean that in a democratic stronghold like Detroit, up to a third of all voters could be subjected to an arbitrary signature comparison test carried out by a GOP partisan.
Most of the voting restrictions circulating in the state legislatures are more modest than SB 303 and 304. B. video surveillance of the ballot boxes or the ban on the sending of unsolicited postal voting documents by the Foreign Minister applications to the voters. Other proposals are potentially more worrying, such as a bill that would give partisan election observers more power to challenge whether an individual voter can cast a vote.
And it is worth reiterating that two bills that would give bad faith electoral officials extraordinarily unlimited powers have already passed a Michigan legislature house. Should SB 303 and 304 become law in their current form, they would immediately rank among the most troubling electoral laws in the country – possibly only rivaling a Georgian law that allows the state's GOP to shut down local electoral boards that have the power to effectively knock down polling stations and disqualify voters.
Again, it is still unclear what the GOP's final package of amendments to the state's electoral law will be. In his July 1 interview, Shirkey said that "we could have used a few handwriting experts in this last election" to screen the voters and that he "in principle" does not oppose the House proposal. However, he also said he was "not sure" that the signature request would be included in the final GOP package and that Republicans should "do everything possible".
However, at the very least, much of the Michigan GOP appears to be aiming high when putting this package together.
Why can't the governor veto all of this?
The main announcement Shirkey made in his interview earlier this month was that voters should "keep their eyes and ears open for the potential of a citizens' initiative" "powered" by the state's Republican Party. That opens the door to a Rube Goldberg-like process that Republicans may be using to circumvent Governor Whitmer's veto.
It works like this: Under the Michigan Constitution, a small minority of voters can propose laws, and those proposals are usually presented to voters as a voting initiative. Other states, such as California, also allow electoral initiatives. However, in Michigan, state lawmakers can step in the middle of the process to convert a proposed voting initiative into law. A small percentage of voters can propose something, and just over half of the state house can make it law. In addition, the state constitution also provides that “no law initiated or passed by the people is subject to the governor's right of veto”.
To begin this process, Republicans must collect a number of signatures from Michigan voters totaling “no less than eight percent. . . the total votes of all candidates for governor in the last general election where a governor was elected. ”That equates to approximately 333,000 signatures in 2021. Once the petition process is complete, the state legislature has 40 days of sitting to avoid petitioning to approve the proposed law, and the governor cannot veto it.
The Democrats can take countermeasures against this maneuver. The state's constitution also allows voters to hold a “referendum” against most laws passed by lawmakers, including one originally proposed under the own-initiative procedure. To trigger a referendum, the Democrats would have to collect signatures totaling 5 percent of the total number of votes in the last gubernatorial race – or just over 200,000 signatures.
Significantly, if the Democrats trigger a referendum, the law will be suspended until the entire electorate has a chance to speak out during an election, and if a majority of voters reject the law it will never go into effect.
In other words, Republicans can't do what they want. But Democrats also cannot be certain that Whitmer's veto will prevent anti-democratic bills from becoming law. At the very least, it seems likely that the fate of future elections in a crucial battlefield state will depend on the outcome of a referendum.
And the outcome of that referendum may depend on voters understanding what exactly is in the package of the GOP's new electoral laws. If Michigan voters believe this fight is primarily a referendum on voter ID, Republicans have a good chance of prevailing – a recent Monmouth University poll found that 80 percent of registered voters in the United States have the need a photo ID to support the vote.
On the other hand, if voters believe they are voting on a very partisan set of proposals that could allow casual poll workers to withdraw voters, then Republicans are likely to be less successful.