Last week, Republicans in the Michigan Senate joined their colleagues across the country in introducing a sweeping package of 39 bills regulating voting rights.
Michigan stands apart from many states, as it has significantly expanded voting rights in recent years. In 2018, more than two-thirds of Michigan voters passed Proposal 3, a constitutional amendment that allows for no-reason absentee voting, same-day voter registration, straight-ticket voting and more.
In the November 2020 election, a record 5.5 million voted.
However, Republicans across the country have sponsored voting restriction bills this term, as part of a well-funded coordinated conservative effort, following President Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential election loss and a slew of unproven right-wing election conspiracy theories.
Most of the Michigan package would be expected to be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer if it makes it through the Legislature, so Republicans are weighing a ballot initiative instead.
“Michigan residents must have complete confidence in the fairness of elections and that all who can legally vote can vote,” Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) tweeted. “That’s why we’re proposing policy reforms to do just that – restore confidence in our elective form of government while giving everyone a voice.”
Senate Bill 310, sponsored by Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), would prohibit the secretary of state from sending out mass absentee ballot applications, like in the 2020 election. The bill is sponsored by Johnson, a former secretary of state.
Another bill, SB 286, sponsored by Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), would only allow voters to return an absentee ballot using a ballot drop box until 5 p.m. the day before the election, while SB 287, sponsored by Sen. Jim Stamas (R-Midland), would prohibit prepaid postage for absentee ballot return envelopes.
Senate Bill 285, sponsored by Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton), would require individuals to present photo ID with their absentee ballot application. If they don’t, they would instead be given a provisional ballot and have to prove their identity after.
Similarly, SB 303, sponsored by Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), would require voters who don’t have a photo ID with them at the polls to cast a provisional ballot and prove their identity later, rather than simply signing an affidavit.
Senate Bill 305, sponsored by Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida), would prohibit the name or likeness of the secretary of state or a local clerk from being used in mailings, billboards, advertisements, or social media posts related to election activities like voting, registering to vote, applying for absentee ballots, returning absentee ballots or finding polling locations.
Senate Bill 297, sponsored by Stamas, would require that at least one canvasser from each political party be present during the canvass at all times and require that anyone hired by a political party to assist canvassing to first be approved by the board of canvassers.
Senate Bill 289, sponsored by Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), requires the Legislature to approve the spending of any federal election funds, essentially tying the hands of the secretary of state.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan joined civil rights leaders and Democrats in denouncing the package.
“For democracy to work for all of us, it must include us all. Throughout our history, we have fought to ensure that every eligible voter can cast their ballot and have it counted. But a handful of elected officials in Michigan and across multiple states want to take us backwards, ultimately making it harder for people to vote by creating barriers to the ballot box, especially for the elderly, Black voters and other voters of color and rural voters,” said Rana Elmir, acting executive director.
A few of the bills in the package may find bipartisan support, like SB 274, sponsored by Johnson, which would allow people to pre-register to vote starting at 16 years old rather than the current law of 17 1/2 years old.
Another, SB 283, sponsored by Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.), would make the law allowing clerks to begin pre-processing absentee ballots the day before the election permanent. Under current law, the extension was only applied to the 2020 election. (The bill does not expand the amount of time that clerks would have to pre-process ballots beyond what they had in the 2020 election.)
Earlier this year, the GOP-led Michigan House of Representatives passed two bills that would require the secretary of state to begin purging certain voters from the qualified voter file.
House Bill 4127, sponsored by Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall), would require the secretary of state to send postage to every registered voter with a placeholder date of birth in the qualified voter file.
The voter would then have to return the card with their birth date at least 15 days before the next election, or otherwise may be required to affirm their birth date in writing before being allowed to vote.
If the voter fails to confirm their birth date after two November general elections, they would have their registration canceled.
The bill passed 61-48 on March 9.
Election law in Michigan prohibits cancelling a voter’s registration based solely on a failure to vote.
Instead, HB 4128, sponsored by Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland) would require the secretary of state to send a notice to registered voters who have not voted since 2000 that they have to fill out and return the enclosed card within 15 days of the next election if they wish to remain registered.
If the voter fails to return the card after two November general elections, their registration would be canceled.
That bill passed the House on March 9 in a 66-43 vote.
Hall pointed to the hearings the Legislature hosted after the election last year, where many Republican conspiracy theories about voting were aired.
“In these hearings, we heard about the need for improved training for election workers and clerks, including signature verification guidelines,” said Hall. “We heard about issues with the qualified voter file – including unknown dates of birth for voters, county clerks not having the authority to remove dead people from lists and third-party organizations having digital access to Michigan’s files. People voiced concerns about security and transparency for ballots, as well as the technology we use for our elections process.”
A third bill, HB 4129, sponsored by Rep. Steve Marino (R-Harrison Twp.), would require the secretary of state to publicly post the name of each county, city and township clerk who is not current with their election education training.
The secretary of state would have to notify the clerks by June 1 of odd-numbered years, ahead of the list being posted on July 1. If the clerk becomes current before July 1, their name would no longer appear on the list.
That bill passed 87-22 on March 9.
Similar bills were introduced last year and gained some traction after the election but never made it to final passage.
Knowingly filling out and submitting an absent voter ballot application containing another person’s name and personal ID information, or false information or a forged signature, would become a felony under HB 4132, sponsored by Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet).
The bill has been reported from committee but has not yet passed the full House. Similar bills passed the House and Senate last year but were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Another bill that passed the Legislature last year was Senate Bill 117 of 2019, would have allowed active duty servicemembers and their spouses to return their ballots electronically if they are stationed outside of the United States.
But while the bill passed both the House and Senate, the Senate never sent it to the governor’s desk.
Whitmer repeatedly called on the Legislature to send her the bill.
“Elections are not the 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 will help them vote,” Whitmer said in October 2020. “It’s time for the legislature to stop playing games, get back to work, and send this bill to my desk.”
During its 2018 lame duck session, the Legislature passed a law making it more difficult to successfully run a petition drive — for measures like Proposal 3 — by capping the number of signatures that can come from any single congressional district to 15% of the total.
Critics argue that rule disenfranchised voters, because if their congressional district had already hit the 15% threshold they would not be able to sign a petition.
Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, issued a legal opinion ruling that the limit on signatures was unconstitutional. Shortly after, the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit to overturn the law, and the Michigan House and Senate filed lawsuits to defend it.
But the Michigan Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit in a 4-3 ruling because the groups that had filed it were not actively running a ballot petition; rather, the case was only dealing in hypothetical future issues.
“Plaintiffs only ask for a declaratory judgment because it perhaps may be needed in the future should they decide to sign some initiative,” Justice David Viviano wrote in the opinion. “They have no plans now to sign any.”
A new lawsuit has been filed by Progress Michigan, a progressive group that is currently backing initiatives to limit the political influence of lobbyists and to expand the Freedom of Information Act to include the governor’s office and Legislature, which are currently exempt.
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this report.