Michigan Democrats have vowed that not all bills that attempt to impose new restrictions on voting will go through Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“These bills will not be signed into law,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a Democrat, told NBC News of the proposals. He called these efforts an “anti-voter, anti-democratic participation movement sweeping through Republican-led legislatures across the country.”
But state GOP lawmakers, who enjoy a majority in both chambers but not enough to override a veto, have a unique option that could allow them to radically alter elections in a critical presidential battlefield without the governor’s support: a little-used quirk in the state’s voting initiative process.
“It’s like this special loophole where they get to cram a whole bunch of bills,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that spearheaded the effort to use a voting initiative to create a independent redistribution commission in the state. few years ago.
Under Michigan’s Constitution, citizens can put an initiative on the ballot if they collect a certain number of signatures – at least 8 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial race. This year, it would be around 340,000 voters’ signatures.
But before an initiative reaches the ballot, the state legislature has the capacity to pass the bill with a simple majority vote in each chamber, and such a measure cannot be subject to a veto. This process is rarely used: only nine other initiatives have become law in this way in the past 58 years, according to the state.
President Joe Biden won Michigan in November, turning it blue after former President Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016.
Since Biden’s victory, Republicans across the state have repeatedly questioned the integrity of the election while maintaining Trump’s lie that the presidency was stolen from him. Lawyer, Trump’s close ally, Rudy Giuliani, was given an unusual power last year during a legislative committee hearing to call “witnesses” and make allegations of fraud that the legal team at the ‘former president has not been able to prove in court.
There is no evidence of widespread U.S. election fraud and, by all official accounts, the 2020 election was safe and the results certified accurate.
Republicans have proposed 39 election bills that include new voter identification requirements, drop box restrictions and a ban on officials from mailing requests to vote by mail or offering prepaid postage on postal ballots. Hearings are expected to begin next week.
Not all of the bills proposed by Republicans would limit access to the vote – one aims to create an early voting weekend, for example – but supporters and Democrats have criticized most of the proposals as designed to make it more difficult to vote, especially for people of color, people on low incomes and people with disabilities. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, argued at a Zoom press conference Thursday that the few large bills included in the package were inefficiently drafted and intended to coat other restrictive laws .
Republican State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in a radio interview in March that the bills are “all slogan or title driven to make it easier to vote and more difficult to cheat ”and will restore confidence in the elections.
The GOP’s measures were pushed back by state companies, mirroring the wave of companies defending access to the vote across the country. On Tuesday, 37 executives from large Michigan-based companies, including General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Quicken Loans / Rocket Mortgage, signed a letter opposing efforts that would make voting more difficult and calling for a bipartisan election administration. That same day, elected officials, religious leaders and activists gathered at the Michigan Capitol to protest the proposals.
Ron Weiser, Chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, raised the possibility of using the Voting Initiative process to change the state’s election at a late March event for the North Oakland Republican Club, where he also made headlines for calling the top three state officials. – Whitmer, Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, all Democratic women – “those three witches.”
“If it is not signed by the governor, we have other plans to ensure it becomes law before 2022,” Weiser said of the voting bills under consideration in published remarks on Facebook. “This plan includes passing this legislation and securing the necessary signatures for a legislative initiative to make it law without the signature of Gretchen Whitmer.
Shirkey and Republican State Senator Lana Theis, who drafted two of the bills, did not return emails requesting interviews.
At the March event, Weiser said there was also a plan to fund the signature collection process. Voting initiatives are expensive endeavors: Several recent successful or pending large-scale voting initiatives have ranged from $ 3 million to over $ 16 million, depending on campaign fundraising filings.
Reached by NBC News, Weiser said in a statement that the GOP state itself would not fund a voting initiative.
“We are committed to making it easier to vote, harder to cheat and to reassure all voters that their vote is protected,” he said. “We plan to support initiative efforts if Governor Whitmer chooses to put partisanship ahead of overwhelming support for voter identification.”
Americans support the concept of voter identification laws, polls suggest. Michigan already has a photo ID requirement, although voters can currently sign an affidavit to vote if they do not have ID. The proposed tightening up of identity requirements is just one part of the larger package of invoices.
An outside group, the Rescue Michigan Coalition, formed this year pledging to support a voting initiative to change the state’s election laws. The group did not respond to a request for comment, but its online proposals suggest it wants to go beyond lawmakers in some areas, such as a total ban on drop boxes.
Wang’s group-backed independent redistribution commission, as well as another voting initiative to institute expansive measures such as automatic voter registration and postal voting without excuse, passed the regular process and were registered. by ballot in 2018. Both were adopted with strong support from voters. , something State Democrats say indicates a public preference over the restrictions proposed by the GOP.
“Michigan is in a little different place than other states because we weighed in on that. Our voters had their say just over two years ago, and 67% said, “We want more access to the ballot box and fewer barriers,” said Senator Jeremy Moss, a Democrat.
Wang said she believes these 2018 initiatives are part of the reason Republicans are considering the restrictions. The state’s legislative maps – which experts say are aimed at Republicans – will be redrawn this year by an independent redistribution commission following last year’s census.
“They know their gerrymander quarters are going to disappear and they are going to lose seats,” she said.
It would not be the Conservatives’ first push to bypass the governor through a ballot. Last year, a group called Unlock Michigan decided to limit Whitmer’s emergency powers to protest the end of the pandemic she had ordered. The effort was largely funded by a nonprofit organization with close ties to Republicans in the state Senate, The Detroit News reported. Weiser also personally donated $ 100,000 to the Unlock Michigan PAC in 2020, according to campaign fundraising documents.
The law the petition sought to curb was declared unconstitutional by a court, but the state is still processing signatures.
The group’s methods of collecting half a million signatures in just 80 days have also been questioned. In September, the state launched an investigation into the Unlock Michigan group. Gilchrist, the lieutenant governor, said officials “will definitely be looking at this” if Republicans try to use the ballot initiative process to pass voting changes.
Wang said defenders are now considering a rival voting initiative or a referendum to try to stop efforts to restrict access to the ballot box.
“Faced with this threat, all options are on the table,” she said, adding that she hoped businesses and voters could pressure Republicans not to adopt these measures first. location. “If we have to go to the polls again to protect voters, we will.”