'Tip of the iceberg': Report warns Michigan GOP ploy could shutter 20% of polling places

'Tip of the iceberg': Report warns Michigan GOP ploy could shutter 20% of polling places
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If successful, a Republican-backed petition initiative in Michigan could result in the closure of one in five polling locations across the crucial battleground state, potentially creating harmful new barriers to ballot access and disenfranchising voters.

That's according to a report published Wednesday by the local advocacy group Progress Michigan, which warned that the election law changes proposed by the Secure MI Vote initiative would "make it harder for Michiganders to vote and make the job of administering elections more difficult for local clerks."

The initiative proposes a slew of restrictive policies—from new voter ID requirements to constraints on absentee ballot distribution—but Progress Michigan's report focuses on a provision that would bar state clerks from accepting in-kind contributions for activities related to election administration.

"While public buildings such as public schools and township halls are used as polling places, Michigan's local clerks also make use of many nonprofit spaces, including places of worship," the report states. "These nonprofit spaces are often donated and Secure MI Vote organizers have conceded this ballot provision would ban Michigan's clerks from accepting donated spaces as polling places."

The measure does not include a provision requiring the Michigan legislature—which is controlled by Republicans—to provide funding for local election clerks to pay for polling places that were previously donated.

Progress Michigan estimates that around 664 of Michigan's 3,355 total polling places for the 2020 election were churches, places of worship, or other similar religious spaces.

"Churches and similar places of worship account for the majority of nonprofit polling places and comprised approximately 20% of all polling places for the 2020 election," the report notes. "According to conversations with clerks, the Secure MI Vote ballot initiative would do away with polling places that have been used in communities for decades, and finding alternative locations could be incredibly difficult—if not impossible—and expensive to acquire."

Sam Inglot, deputy director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement that the report's findings represent "just the tip of the iceberg" in terms of the potential harms of the Secure MI Vote initiative.

"This initiative will change where voters have voted in previous elections, in some cases for decades, and could reduce the overall number of polling places available to voters," said Inglot. "This systematic defunding of our elections will result in longer lines, longer drives, and less people able to make their voices heard."

The right-wing organizers of the Secure MI Vote initiative began collecting signatures for the measure last month, and it needs just over 340,000 signatures from registered voters to be taken up by Michigan's GOP-controlled legislature—which will have the power to either adopt the proposal or put it on the ballot for voters to choose.

Should Michigan lawmakers decide to adopt the measure, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would be powerless to veto it.

"I hope people are able to see the danger and the impact of this proposal and refuse to sign it," said Mary Clark, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks and clerk of Delta Township. "If this were to pass, I don't know what I would do. I don't know what other clerks would do."

"This is the type of policy that causes me to lay awake at night because it will cause so much confusion amongst voters and put clerks in impossible situations," Clark added. "This would absolutely negatively impact legally registered voters in my jurisdiction and every jurisdiction in this state."

Animated by former President Donald Trump's "Big Lie" that the 2020 election was stolen, Michigan Republicans have attempted to ram through sweeping changes to the state's election laws but have been rebuffed by Whitmer, who has vetoed several GOP-sponsored voter suppression bills in recent weeks. President Joe Biden narrowly won Michigan in 2020.

As MLive reported last month, the Secure MI Vote initiative "mirrors" legislation that Republicans have failed to get past the governor's desk.

"There is no doubt the goal of this proposal is to harm democracy," Barb Byrum, the clerk for Michigan's Ingham County, told the local City Pulse on Wednesday. "It is designed to put obstacles and hurdles between voters and the ballot box."

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