Republicans in the Michigan Senate proposed a 39-bill election reform package on March 24 that would drastically change voting in the state of Michigan. If passed, the reform package would require all voters to show photo identification, close voting drop boxes at 5 p.m. the day before Election Day and prohibit prepaid postage on absentee ballots.
Similar packages are being proposed in many states nationwide, including Georgia, in an attempt to tighten voter security following unfounded claims of election fraud by former President Donald Trump and his supporters. Georgia’s recently-passed voting rights law has come under heavy national criticism for suppressing people’s right to vote. Though neither provision is in the new law, legislators discussed possible changes such as banning elections on Sunday and eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, among others.
Shortly after the Nov. 2020 general election, Trump tried to prove that he won the election by filing numerous lawsuits aimed at undermining election results, all of which were thrown out or withdrawn.
Proponents of Michigan’s reform package say some of the proposed policies may reduce barriers to voting, such as allowing 16-year-old Michiganders to pre-register so they can vote when they turn 18 years old, and requiring local clerks to open for early voting the second Saturday before an election. Critics of the reform package, however, say some of the policies like requiring photo ID would make voting harder in Michigan, especially for people of color.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the bills are designed to make voting easier and “cheating harder.”
LSA junior Ryan Fisher, president of the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Republicans, said he believes the bills will increase confidence in elections without creating significant barriers to voting.
“I think there is a substantial security gain and improvement, whereas any sort of threat to access is quite limited in comparison,” Fisher said. “Pre-registering 16-year-olds is something that even the bill’s dissenters have come to like.”
LSA sophomore Julia Schettenhelm, communications director for the University’s chapter of College Democrats, told The Michigan Daily in a statement that the organization does not support laws that bar eligible voters from casting their ballots.
“College Democrats at U-M are against any provisions that disenfranchise an otherwise eligible voter from exercising their right to vote, especially because these laws would disproportionately affect marginalized communities,” Schettenhelm wrote. “There was no evidence of voter fraud in the state of Michigan during the 2020 election, and we have faith in Secretary of State Benson to continue to keep our elections secure.”
Rana Elmir, acting executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, denounced the proposed changes in a March 24 press release.
“For democracy to work for all of us, it must include us all,” Elmir said in the press release. “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.”
Robert Yoon, lecturer in U-M’s department of Communications and Media and former director of political research at CNN for 18 years, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily that elections are, at their core, intended to be nonpartisan and accurate despite being driven by politics.
“The actual election system and the voting process is supposed to be apolitical,” Yoon said. “What we’re seeing across the country is Republican-controlled state legislatures trying to change the voting landscape and the set of rules under which their candidate lost in the last election.”
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, told The Daily the bill package is another “concerning” mechanism through which the Michigan Republican Party has tried to make voting harder.
“(Senate Republicans) are attempting to make it more difficult for people to vote, to create obstacles that will cause valid voters to not be able to cast their ballot on Election Day or to get their absentee ballot rejected, which will ultimately cause legitimate voters to not be able to vote,” Irwin said.
Irwin said that one bill’s clause to expand large precincts will lead to longer lines and may dissuade people from voting who do not have time to wait in line for hours. Large precincts are primarily located in urban communities mainly populated by people of color, especially those that have historically leaned left.
The package also includes measures that Republicans say will ensure election integrity by tightening restrictions on identification, absentee ballots and drop boxes. The bills would prohibit the Secretary of State from mailing unsolicited absentee ballots to citizens or posting absentee ballot applications on a website, increase requirements for counting and monitoring ballots and tighten voter ID laws for in-person and absentee voting.
Irwin said stricter voter ID laws — which disproportionately impact people of color, particularly Black people — may increase the interaction time between voters and election officials, another tactic to make lines longer.
Fisher said he believes that every election has some degree of fraud, so it makes sense for the legislature to pass bills that he thinks would make the voting process more transparent and trustworthy. He said he does not believe voter ID laws create a significant barrier to voting for most people.
“I think voter ID is a critical component to voting, or at least it should be,” Fisher said. “If you need to show ID to drink or operate in a lot of other ways in our society, there’s no reason why a national or even state election should not be held to that same standard, given that it is so prevalent and important for our society’s progression.”
There is a consensus among election officials from both parties that voter fraud is incredibly rare and does not affect election outcomes, including in the 2020 election, despite common claims of fraud, often from Republican politicians.
Yoon said the more nuanced an election process is and the more it changes over time, the more voters slip through the cracks.
“Voters should not have to go to extraordinary measures to be able to cast their vote,” Yoon said. “Even things like having to wait in lines … having to wait two or three hours on election day just to cast their ballot, I think that’s an undue burden being placed on voters. The more moving parts there are in terms of the election process, the more voters you’re going to lose.”
Yoon also said there is a fine line between voter suppression and voter security, and different parties have conflicting ideas about the extent to which the government should guard against voter fraud.
“The whole debate between whether something is voter suppression or voting security basically comes down to a values judgment — it reflects a set of values on the part of the different parties,” Yoon said. “Is it worse to prevent a legal voter from casting a ballot, or is it worse to have someone who shouldn’t be voting cast a ballot and have that vote be counted? … A question that might come up is: In order to prevent an illegal vote to be cast, how far are you willing to go to ensure that outcome?”
Josiah Walker, LSA senior and president of Turn Up Turnout, a nonpartisan student organization that promotes voter engagement, wrote in an email to The Daily that he thinks voting should be as accessible as possible. Walker said he believes the bill package will adversely affect voter turnout by increasing barriers to registering and during the voting process itself.
“Voter suppression is about shifting power away from groups, like marginalized communities and people of color, who can change election outcomes,” Walker said. “Accordingly, any instance of voter suppression in the bill package could have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities and people of color.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has already made it clear that she will veto the bills if they come to her desk. However, the GOP may be able to pass the package regardless, because of a clause in the Michigan Constitution that allows citizens to initiate legislation through a petition requiring just over 340,000 signatures, 8% of the number of votes cast in the last state gubernatorial election. Whitmer would have no power to veto this legislation.
“We just came through a historic, free, fair, full election,” Whitmer said in a statement on Facebook. “There was not fraud the way that this big lie perpetuated and fed into people’s anxiety and inspired the unthinkable on Jan. 6. This is a solution in search of a problem and it is unacceptable. If and when those bills get to my desk and they are aimed at making it harder for people to vote, they will get vetoed.”
Irwin said he supports Michigan’s efforts to include citizens in democratic processes, but is wary of citizens signing a petition without completely understanding the implications of the law. Republicans have succeeded in passing legislation in this manner before, most notably in 2014 when they created a state law mandating that abortions couldn’t be covered by insurance.
“People have to organize, get educated and let people know that these petitions should not be signed,” Irwin said.
Fisher said he supports Republicans using a petition to pass the legislation given Whitmer’s clear opposition to the bills.
“It doesn’t make sense to continue driving 80 miles per hour toward a wall,” Fisher said. “The petition is a part of our process, and is embedded in our system, so we might as well take advantage of it.”
This story has been updated to better reflect the recent controversy surrounding Georgia voting law.