Whitmer urges cooperation as COVID-19 orders battle continues with GOP

Bill signed to lengthen ballot processing window

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Senate Bill 757, which will help the state of Michigan ensure every vote is counted in the upcoming November election. | Whitmer office photo

In a virtual press conference alongside Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Delta Township Clerk Mary Clark, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed her hopes for what will happen in Michigan now that her executive orders have been hindered by a narrow court ruling.

She also signed a bill into law that will assist clerks with ballots during the approaching Nov. 3 election. Whitmer was openly critical of GOP leaders on numerous issues throughout her remarks, from their hesitation to act on unemployment benefits to not prioritizing COVID-19 safety measures.

Shifting emergency powers

During the press conference, Whitmer addressed Friday’s ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court in which the GOP majority voted 4-3 to strike down Whitmer’s use of two laws she has used throughout the COVID-19 outbreak: The 1976 Emergency Management Act (EMA) and the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act (EPGA).

The court narrowly found the EPGA to be unconstitutional, although it made clear that Whitmer had interpreted and utilized the 1945 law correctly as it existed.

“After the Republican Legislature sued to take away my executive authority, this past Friday the Michigan State Supreme Court struck down the statute under which I had issued several of these executive orders so we can save lives, protect Michigan families, communities and businesses and our frontline workers,” Whitmer said.

Whistleblower: U.S. needs coordinated national testing strategy, vaccine plan

“While we know that there is a lot of concern right now because of where the [increasing COVID-19 case] numbers are and because of this ruling and the chaos that has ensued and the confusion that has been created, likely our numbers could go up. … We’re going to do everything that we can do to keep that from happening,” Whitmer said.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will continue to roll out its own emergency orders in the coming days to make up for some of Whitmer’s soon-to-be-void executive actions.

A report released Tuesday by the liberal nonprofit group Progress Michigan reveals that the GOP-led state Legislature has spent at least $542,295 on its lawsuit aimed at Whitmer’s emergency powers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

In June, the Advance reported that the firm GOP leaders hired to sue Whitmer has deep ties to the Republican party. Details about the contract with Bush Seyferth & Paige PLLC, financial arrangements with the firm and communications about the deal are still yet to be disclosed. The state Legislature is not subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Legislature’s taxpayer-funded contract with GOP-connected firm in Whitmer suit raises transparency concerns

Whitmer also cajoled legislators to cancel their planned October recess and instead take action to adopt her executive order extending unemployment benefits by six weeks.

Currently, the state Legislature has only three days of session scheduled — Thursday, Oct. 8, Tuesday, Oct. 13 and Wednesday, Oct. 21 — before the November election.

“While the Supreme Court has spoken, and while I vehemently disagree with the conclusion, now is the time for the Republicans in the Legislature to come back to town and start showing that they take this crisis seriously, too,” Whitmer said Tuesday. “I’m ready to work with the Legislature, but I’m never going to negotiate when it comes to doing the right thing and protecting the people’s health.

“I’m here in the Capitol today. The Legislature is not,” Whitmer said.

On Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Shirkey (R-Clarklake) would not commit to codifying Whitmer’s executive order into law.

“I haven’t given it much thought because I just kind of rolled my eyes when it was done under an executive order, and I haven’t paid that much close attention to it,” he told Crain’s Detroit. “But now, I believe we legitimately should.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) responded to Whitmer’s press conference remarks Tuesday with a tweet, reading: “We’ve been in session all during Covid, yet the Governor has refused to work with us. Now she’s claiming we’re not in town while she’s working, though yesterday she campaigned all day for House Democrats. The hypocrisy is astounding. It’s Laughable! Good thing nobody believes it.”

Shirkey and Chatfield also released a joint statement Tuesday night about the legislative agenda moving forward and slamming Whitmer’s criticisms.

“In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, there are a number of time-sensitive issues that will require legislative action,” the statement reads, noting that the House has now added Tuesday, Oct. 13 as an additional session day.

“We will do everything we can to make sure the people of Michigan have peace of mind about the state’s response and about their future. The exact legislative agenda has yet to be determined, but the Senate and House are working together right now to review the governor’s numerous executive orders and determine which issues require immediate attention,” said Shirkey and Chatfield.

“While the governor spends her time on the campaign trail and taking political jabs at legislative partners, we are putting together a smarter plan of action to provide certainty to Michigan families and move this state forward.”

More time to process ballots

Whitmer also signed a bill into law during the press conference to help clerks with Michigan’s historic surge of absentee ballots.

Senate Bill 757 is sponsored by state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.) with bipartisan co-sponsors. It will allow cities and townships with at least 25,000 residents to begin processing ballots earlier ahead of November’s election, as clerks had previously only been allowed to start the process on election day.

Clerks will also be required to notify voters within 48 hours if any issues arise with their ballot, so voters can resolve those problems and have their vote counted.

Legislature OKs bill letting some clerks process ballots before Nov. 3, but nixes Dem attempt to expand it

Benson noted that although SB 787 gives more time for clerks to sort through ballots — specifically, a timeframe of 10 additional hours the day before Nov. 3 — Michiganders should not expect a change in the state’s estimation of when results will be announced.

“We still expect that it will be the Friday of that week, election week, that we can expect every ballot will be tabulated,” Benson said. “Now, it may be sooner, but we want to manage those expectations and we want all of our voters, all watching our elections to be patient as our clerks work methodically carefully and securely to tabulate every ballot and ensure that the results of our elections, once announced, are an accurate reflection of the will of the people.”

According to the Michigan Department of State, 2.7 million Michiganders have requested absentee ballots and 380,000 of those have so far been returned.

Whitmer also noted that she had originally planned to also sign Senate Bill 117 into law Tuesday, but Republican leaders did not send the legislation to her.

SB 117 would allow military service members and their spouses to return ballots electronically if they are unable to do so in person.

“For some reason, the Republican leaders in the Legislature chose not to send me this though yet. I’m not sure what’s going on there. … Elections are no time to play partisan games. Our brave service members and their families put their lives on the line for us, and they deserve leaders who are going to help them vote. It’s time for the Legislature to get these bills to my desk. They’ve got a lot of work to do.”