Civil rights leader on GOP-sponsored voter reform bills: ‘They have placed democracy on a ventilator’

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP president, is joined by Democratic members of the Michigan Legislature during a rally to push back against GOP Senate bills. | Ken Coleman photo

A few hundred people rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday to protest a set of GOP bills that significantly roll back voter reforms laws designed to create ease in casting ballots.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit Branch NAACP president, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Democratic members of the House and Senate joined union members and others in pushing back against voting measures introduced by GOP state Senate members in March.

“They have placed democracy on a ventilator,” said Anthony, referring to the GOP members. “It does not provide greater access but is a scheme to suppress the votes of a select group of Michiganders. Who would have thought that we would be fighting for the right to vote in the year 2021?” 

Included in a 39-bill package, are measures that would ban unsolicited mass mailing of absentee ballot applications, prohibit pre-paid postage on absentee ballot envelopes for absentee ballots, require a photo ID, curb the hours people could drop off their ballots in boxes and require video surveillance of such drop boxes.

Several of the bill sponsors said the package will “make improvements in five areas — making it easier to vote, protecting the vote, election day operations, increased transparency and absentee voting.”

“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) said at the time. “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.”

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.

Duggan, a Democrat, pointed out that Detroit voters played a critical role in helping Democratic President Joe Biden win Michigan. 

“These bills are morally reprehensible actions to try to keep people from voting for the simple reason that they aren’t going to vote the way the sponsors want them to,” said Duggan.

Biden won Michigan by more than 154,000 votes, or roughly a 3% margin. Detroit is 79% African American.

State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) addressed the crowd on behalf of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus.

“The public is aware of how horrendous these bills are,” said Geiss, who is Afro-Latinx. “They are out here supporting voting rights in our state. We [Michigan Legislature] should not be trying to cap or suppress that.” 

Bobby Leddy, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s press secretary, offered a message on Tuesday that is in accord with the demonstrators. 

“Governor Whitmer believes our state has a duty to protect the freedom to vote in Michigan, and any piece of legislation that seeks to take away a person’s right to vote or creates barriers to voting is a non-starter,’’ Leddy said. 

“In 2018, Michigan voters spoke loud and clear when they passed Proposal 3 by resounding margins to expand voting rights so that Michiganders could more fully participate in our democracy,’’ he said. “Rather than trying to create barriers to voting, the Republican-controlled Legislature should protect the right to vote, respect the will of Michigan voters, and work with us to ensure all elections are safe, free, and fair.” 

The protest came as the same day as chief executives of some of Michigan’s top employers, including Ford and General Motors, called on government to “avoid actions that reduce participation in elections – particularly among historically disenfranchised communities, persons with disabilities, older adults, racial minorities and low-income voters.’’ 


Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.