Local groups concerned for Michigan voting rights

HOUGHTON — Copper Country community members are raising concerns about a petition drive that could tighten voting laws across the state of Michigan.

A downstate organization known as Secure MI Vote has proposed a list of changes to Michigan election procedure. To advance its proposal, the group is using an unusual provision in Michigan’s constitution that allows “resident-initiated legislation” to circumvent the Governor’s veto.

While the group maintains that its proposal would improve election security, critics argue that it amounts to “voter suppression,” because it would make voting more difficult for many citizens, and would likely have a disproportionate impact on people of color, and on low-income and urban residents.

A local grass-roots group called Voting Rights Advocate (VRA) has come together to oppose Secure MI Vote’s proposal. Founding members Beth Flynn, Bill Binroth, and Horst Schmidt formed the non-partisan and unaffiliated group with the goal of protecting the voting rights of Michiganders.

“What we’re trying to do is point out the deceiving nature of this petition, and encourage people not to sign,” said Binroth. “Because although it sounds like it’s protecting voters, it’s really limiting voting rights.”

Secure MI Vote was unavailable for comment.

Following the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump and other GOP figures promoted false claims of widespread voter fraud.

There is no evidence to support these claims. An investigation by Michigan’s Republican-led Senate Oversight Committee found “no evidence of widespread or systemic fraud.”

Still, Michigan’s GOP-controlled legislature introduced a variety of election security measures, including a sweeping 39-bill package that included proposals to tighten photo ID requirements, create new rules for absentee voting, and limit droboxes.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer promised to veto any bill that would make it harder for people to vote, and blocked several bills passed by the legislature.

But Secure MI Vote could dodge Whitmer’s veto by using a petition process outlined in Michigan’s Constitution.

The group must collect 340,047 valid signatures – the equivalent of 8% of the total number of Michigan residents who voted in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

If the signature threshold is reached, the proposal is sent to the legislature, where lawmakers have 40 days to vote on it. If the legislature does not take a vote, the proposal goes to the ballot for voters to decide during the next election. But if lawmakers pass the proposal, it becomes law and cannot be vetoed.

Secure MI Vote’s proposal would make several changes to existing Michigan election law.

It would prohibit election officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who did not request them; require voters applying for absentee ballots to submit their driver’s license or state ID number and the last four digits of their social security number; and prevent local governments from providing free return postage on absentee ballots.

It would also bar “outside corporate entities” from providing grant funding for election administration purposes, and eliminate the affidavit option, which allows voters who do not present a photo ID to cast a ballot if they attest that they are who they say they are under penalty of perjury.

Proponents of voting rights argue that because there is no evidence of fraud in Michigan elections, Secure MI Vote’s proposal would make voting harder for no reason.

“These are all incremental changes – voter suppression by inches. They’re little things, but they’re burdensome and unnecessary,” said Barry Fink, president of the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country.

The League of Women Voters of Michigan, and its local Copper Country chapter, oppose the Secure MI Vote proposal. The League is a non-partisan group that does not support political candidates or parties, but does take positions on issues.

“It’s a response to claims that the last election was fraudulent. But that has been disproved by 250 audits and the examination by Senator McBroom’s committee. The claim that there was fraud is used to justify this kind of petition,” Fink said.

“We have a very safe and secure voting process in Michigan and we should be proud of the work that our election officials do. To make their job any more difficult is pointless,” she continued.

For the members of VRA, the proposed changes to absentee voting rules are particularly worrying.

“Up to this point in time, absentee voter ballot applications were sent out to everybody,” said Binroth. “This petition would limit it to the point where you would only get one if you ask for the application.”

In 2020, absentee ballot applications – which must be submitted before a citizen can receive an actual ballot – were mailed to every voter in Michigan, a practice that likely contributed to record voter turnout in the election despite the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no evidence that this caused voter fraud.

Critics have also taken issue with the petition process, because it could advance the proposal without giving the majority of Michigan’s 8 million voters the opportunity to weigh in.

“It allows the legislature to enact [the proposal] directly into law without putting it on the ballot for citizens to vote on,” said Fink. “The manner by which it would get enacted does not allow for fair citizen input.”

Although two dozen states allow citizens to initiate legislation through a petition drive, in most states, the process sends the proposals to the voters in the form of a ballot initiative. Michigan is one of only two states that prohibits the governor from vetoing the legislation if it is passed by the legislature.

The League of Women Voters encouraged concerned citizens to sign a counter-petition called ‘Promote the Vote,’ which would send a proposal intended to protect voting rights to the ballot.

“Be mindful of what you’re being asked to sign. Our advice is don’t sign anything other than the ‘Promote the Vote’ petition,” said Fink.

Voting Rights Advocates has organized a virtual event to provide more information on the issue. The event will feature four presenters, and will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 16. Interested individuals should contact Beth Flynn at eflynn@mtu.edu for more information.


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