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Besides being a thinly veiled attack on the freedom to vote for Black and low-income Michiganders, the so-called Secure MI Vote initiative is a crass political maneuver posing as a solution in search of a problem. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, surely understands this as well as anyone.

“The Big Lie” of substantial voter fraud in the 2020 election has been thoroughly disproven by investigation after investigation, most notably in the Republican-led State Senate investigation of 2021. Even one of its biggest cheerleaders, Rudy Giuliani, said they have “lots of theories (but)… don’t have the evidence”. Nevertheless, extremists within the Republican party are now using this baseless conspiracy theory as an excuse to attempt to pass voter restriction laws that, by design, would make it harder for Black and low-income Michiganders to vote. Our democracy hangs in the balance as we debate this issue.

It’s easy to understand how making people jump through a bunch of hoops unnecessarily could deter voters from casting a ballot when it is their right to do so. The architects of the anti-voter bills know that while 11% of all Americans lack ID,  25% of Black registered voters lack the specified ID they would require. Existing law – that works and is safe and secure – already allows people who vote without an ID to cast a provisional ballot, one which counts only if the voter is determined to be eligible.

The extremist lawmakers backing this effort have crossed a red line. When the Michigan State University Board of Trustees considered a resolution to confront this abomination, it had sufficient support to be put on the agenda for their September 9 meeting. The measure asked the vendors they do business with to stop financially supporting these extremists because it not only violated values long held by the university, but those the vendors professed themselves: that they supported fairness, equity and access to the ballot. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan’s CEO signed a joint statement last year actually opposing legislative proposals that would eventually become the Secure MI Vote initiative, yet they remain the top corporate contributor to the lawmakers backing that initiative.

Then Sen. Shirkey was asked about the MSU voting rights resolution in a Detroit News column. He responded by threatening the funding of our public universities. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that he would leverage this type of power dynamic since PACs he oversees also receive donations from some of the same university vendors. Sadly, one of the Trustees must have felt pressured by the hollow threat and the Board never took a vote on it, forgetting that during the next budget cycle, Shirkey’s opinion or influence on any university budget will not matter as he will no longer be in office. These are the same financial scare tactics we’ve seen inserted in proposed legislation that threatens K-12 institutions with budgetary extortion if they don’t alter their curriculums to stop teaching the truth about our country’s complex history with respect to race. 

The University of Michigan Board of Regents can still stand up for their principles and push back against this bully and his empty threats by taking a stand on voting rights. The Regents will hopefully remember that the harm caused to Black, brown and working class people if the bill proposed in Secure MI Vote becomes law will also be visited upon the student body who predominantly have the need to vote absentee.

Clearly, Sen. Shirkey would have people believe that our difference of opinion is partisan. It’s not. The right and freedom for everyone — including Black Michiganders and students — to vote and participate in our democracy should be a universal value, and it has only become a partisan issue because extremist Republicans like Shirkey have made it one. We hope that the University of Michigan Board of Regents will not cower in the face of Republican attacks, and will move its vendors to stop financing anti-democracy and anti-civil rights extremism with tax and tuition dollars. Standing by silently can no longer be conscionable.

Erika Geiss is a member of the Michigan Senate, representing parts of Wayne County.

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