Voting rights, election security in crosshairs

Feb. 27—TRAVERSE CITY — A Republican-led initiative that would bypass voters and skirt a veto by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will make it harder to vote or will secure elections, depending on which side of the aisle a person is on.

Secure MI Vote is an initiative that would change the state's election laws to do away with the ability for a voter to sign an affidavit of identity in lieu of a state-issued ID, requires a voter to submit a photo ID with an application for an absentee ballot, ban clerks from sending out absentee ballot applications to all voters, and eliminates the use of non-public funds for elections.

"They're not securing your vote, they're making it harder to vote," said Christina Schlitt, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, which has come out against the initiative.

"We oppose Secure MI Vote because it restricts voting rights, it's voter suppression," Schlitt said.

Lisa Trombley, chair of the Grand Traverse County Republican Party, said the initiative is not suppression, but will improve voter confidence in elections.

"It's unfortunate that Secure MI Vote has been politicized because it is a set of nonpartisan additions and amendments that strengthen existing legislation to address areas of concern raised during the 2016 and 2020 elections," Trombley said.

A unique provision in the Michigan Constitution allows organizers to collect signatures to send the Secure MI Vote initiative to the majority-GOP legislature to be enacted into law rather than be placed on the 2022 ballot. It would also be veto-proof under the Constitution.

A total of 340,047 valid signatures of registered voters — or 8 percent of total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election — must be collected by the June 1 deadline to send the measure to lawmakers.

Schlitt said the provision is being treated as a way to get a small number of people in Michigan to dictate the laws.

Another, competing, petition drive soon will begin for Promote the Vote 2022 that aims to amend the Michigan Constitution by enshrining current voter ID rules in the constitution, thereby limiting the ability of lawmakers to change voting requirements. It would also allow nine days of early voting, allow for state funding of ballot postage and secure drop boxes, ban political parties from participating in audits and more.

"It's really to expand access to voting," said Chris Cracchiolo, chair of the Grand Traverse County Democratic Party.

It requires 425,059 signatures — or 10 percent of total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election get it on the November ballot. Petition language was approved earlier this month by the Michigan Board of Canvassers, with a July 11 deadline for collecting signatures.

If the constitutional amendment is passed by voters it will override much of the legislation contained in the Secure MI Vote initiative.

Secure MI Vote is opposed by clerks across the state who say elections are secure.

"I feel strongly that across the state and across the country there have been no instances of voter fraud that would alter the results of the election," said Benjamin Marentette, Traverse City clerk.

Despite the evidence, Karan Josephus, chair of the Leelanau County Republican Party, believes there were serious issues in the 2020 election, though not necessarily in Leelanau.

"There were too many shenanigans in some places," said Josephus, who also believes former President Donald Trump won in 2020.

But that's water under the bridge and Secure MI Vote is about looking forward, she said.

"I don't think that my vote is any more important than anyone else's, but I want to know that it counts," Josephus said.

The Democratic-led Promote the Vote 2022 is backed by the same group that was successful in the passage of Proposal 3 in 2018, a constitutional amendment that allows for same-day voter registration and allows every voter to cast an absentee ballott for any reason.

Marentette is concerned that Secure MI Vote undermines Prop 3, to which 2.77 million voters said "yes."

"It in a lot of ways goes against what was passed by 67 percent of voters across the state in 2018," Marentette said.

Nuts and bolts

One provision of Secure MI Vote would eliminate an option that lets in-person voters who don't have an ID sign an affidavit of identity under penalty of perjury and have their vote counted on Election Day. In the 2020 election 0.2 percent of the nearly 5.6 million voters signed an affidavit to vote.

Under the initiative, those who don't have an ID could sign a provisional ballot, but it will only be counted if the person goes to their clerk's office with a valid ID within six days. It would also create a $3 million state fund to provide free ID to those voters who claim a hardship.

Another would require a photocopy of a person's ID on an application for an absentee ballot. Voters who don't have an ID have the option of providing their state ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number on the application. If they don't they would receive a provisional ballot that would not count unless a person presented an ID in person at their clerk's office within six days of the election.

An ID is not now required for an absentee ballot. Instead, clerks match the signatures on the application against signatures on file for each voter. The signature on the return envelope is checked again when the ballot is returned.

"So there are a number of checks and balances to make sure everything is done right and with integrity," Marentette said.

Josephus said under the current system clerks must make a "value judgement" on matching the signatures.

Secure MI Vote would ban the Michigan Secretary of State, election clerks and their employees from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications, though it would not ban political parties, special interests or advocacy groups from sending out applications.

Josephus said there is no reason to spend tax dollars to send blanket applications to people who don't need them.

In 2020 the pandemic had Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson mailing absentee applications to all Michigan voters. It was a decision upheld by federal courts.

Marentette said after the 2020 election there was false information being spread that the Secretary of State mailed ballots to every voter, when what was actually mailed were ballot applications.

Cracchiolo said the name of the initiative, Secure MI Vote, implies that voting in the state is insecure. Quite the opposite is true, he said.

"Our results in 2020 in Michigan prove that our voting was never more secure," Cracchiolo said, pointing to more than 250 audits done in the state that confirmed the election's integrity.

The final provision in Secure MI Vote would prohibit election clerks from accepting private money or in-kind contributions to conduct elections. Instead, they could only use public funds appropriated by a governmental body for all election related activities, including equipment purchases, voter registration and informational mail.

Last year, 465 Michigan municipalities received COVID-19 response grants with the money used to pay for election equipment, postage and extra staff. The grants were given out by the Center for Tech and Civic Life and were funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, prompting more than a dozen lawsuits, all of which were dismissed by conservative and liberal judges alike.

Beyond Secure MI Vote

Michigan legislators have introduced dozens of other bills to restrict voting rights, according to the Michigan Secretary of State website:

* SB 286 would require drop boxes to be locked and emptied at 5 p.m. the day before an election, with no further votes collected.

* SB 287 would ban prepaid postage on absentee ballot return envelopes.

* SB 299 would require vote counting to stop and results to be reported by noon the day after the election, making it impossible for clerks who have no authority under law not to count all valid ballots.

* SB 305 would ban the name or likeness of an elected or appointed official on any election-related communication.

* SB 309 would give challengers stronger protections than poll workers, a measure that would lengthen voting lines and enable more improper challenges.

* SB 279 would allow two challengers per party for every for 2,999 ballots at an absentee ballot counting board and one additional challenger per party for each additional 2,999 ballots.