Republicans just launched an unprecedented sneak attack on voting rights in a crucial swing state

Republicans just launched an unprecedented sneak attack on voting rights in a crucial swing state
Voting booth attendants show Tech. Sgt. Rebekah Virtue voting literature at the Spouses' Club Spring Bazaar March 27, 2010, Eielson Air Force Base. The booth attendants were available to get people registered to vote and answer any questions they might have. Sergeant Virtue is a 354th Medical Group Family Practice NCO in charge.(U.S. Air Force photo by/Airman 1st Class Janine Thibault).

During their hapless attempts into shaming Republicans over their eager embrace of voter suppression, Democrats like to cite the fact that every GOP senator supported the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act back in 2006. But Republicans' current refusal to budge on the filibuster to restore voting rights again isn't a matter of a sudden reversal in political philosophy, but simply the result of the party's long-term plan to undermine democracy.

The Supreme Court's gutting of the landmark VRA in 2013 freed Republicans of having to pay lip service to the importance of fairness and equal access to the ballot, which in turn allowed them to pursue their resurrection of Jim Crow hegemony.

Save for a few maps overturned by Democratic-leaning state courts, the John Roberts-authorized decision blessed most of the gerrymanders that the GOP installed after flipping legislatures nationwide during the 2011 redistricting. As they consolidated power, Republicans still faced one major obstacle in their quest to cement minority rule: People didn't like it.

In 2018, a number of very purple states passed ballot initiatives to prevent future gerrymandering and open up access to the polls. These initiatives generally passed with overwhelming support from voters on both sides of the aisle; in Michigan, Prop 3 — which created no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration — received 67% of the vote. A separate initiative to create an independent redistricting commission passed with nearly 62% of the vote.

And then 2020 happened.

Donald Trump spent the months following the election working Republicans up into a frothing anger, embracing conspiracy theories and weaponizing antipathy for government in an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. The result was classic Trump, as he left failed miserably and left anger, chaos, and dysfunction in his wake. Republican officials have used the distrust in the system that Trump fostered as cover for a slew of deeply racist voter suppression bills in states where Republicans have government trifectas and ballot initiatives where they don't have a full death grip on government.

The latter is happening in Michigan, where Republicans are attempting to use a bizarre constitutional clause to shred much of the progress made in 2018. Now that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed a suite of anti-voter bills passed by Republican legislators, a right-wing puppet group called Secure MI Vote is trying to gather enough signature to circumvent her veto and roll back some of the most important provisions passed in 2018.

As with many other states, Michigan requires a certain number of signed petitions to get an initiative on the ballot. But in Michigan, the legislature has the option of simply adopting the proposed law before it even gets in front voters. Laws passed through this process can be passed with a simple majority and are immune to vetoes, allowing for a very small minority of people to run roughshod over democratic norms.

Secure MI Vote, which is being financed entirely by the head of the Michigan GOP, is not going unchallenged. Voters Not Politicians, the grassroots organization that organized the successful 2018 ballot initiatives, is now working to prevent Secure MI Vote from collecting the 340,000 valid signatures it needs.

I spoke this week with Kim Murphy-Kovalick, the state field director at Voters Not Politicians, who offered insight into what is shaping up to be a monumental clash over the next six months.

Progressives Everywhere: Republicans passed a lot of anti-voter bills this session, all of which were vetoed by Gov. Whitmer. Can you explain which laws they're trying to get passed via signature collection and how that would work?

Kim Murphy-Kovalick: This was their plan all along. The package started out as 39 bills and eventually there were only the two, SB 303 and 304. They wanted to get these in front of the governor and have her veto them that they could rile up their base and the believers in the Big Lie and use that as a kickoff to this petition drive.

The petition includes many things, but the one that they are talking about the most is toughening up Michigan's voter ID laws. The fact is that we've had voter ID laws in place for over 20 years. All this does is remove the affidavit option, which very few people actually use. [Voters can sign an affidavit asserting their identity if they forget their photo ID].

That's not the most damaging part of the bill. For those 11,000 people in 2020 who relied on the affidavit, it would make a difference to them and infringe upon their constitutional rights. But the bigger impact is going to be that it's making absentee voting harder and that's where we're going to see the bigger outcomes.

Another part that's not talked about nearly enough is that it would restrict the grant money to election officials. Election administrators, clerks all over the state, rely on grant money in small and large amounts in order to administer elections. They use it in the form of donated polling places from churches, voter registration drives that are run by outside organizations like the League of Women Voters, as one example. All those organizations, they wouldn't be able to donate their time anymore.

In 2020 and in other years as well, clerks received grant money and used it to pay for election workers for extra training, to provide food and water for election workers, they used it to buy drop boxes and pay for prepaid postage on absentee ballot applications and ballots. That money will be cut off if this petition is adopted into law.

So how would these initiatives undo what was done in 2018?

It's an attack on Prop 3, which really opened up for Michigan absentee voting. It implemented no reason absentee voting and same day voter registration. Those are the two big ones. We saw in 2020 people really use absentee voting. I think the combination of COVID and the availability made absentee voting extremely popular and over 3.2 million people voted absentee.

In Michigan, the process is that you have to request your absentee ballot application by mail or in person, and then you get it sent to you. Clerks have the option of maintaining a permanent absentee ballot list. You still have to apply for your absentee ballot each and every time; if you're on the permanent list, it just means that your clerk will automatically send you an application.

In the bills that were vetoed and in the laws they're petitioning for, they're prohibiting local and state officials from sending the application unless you specifically ask for it. It's kind of ridiculous. If you're a registered voter, you have the right to vote absentee for no reason whatsoever. We shouldn't have to beg for our application or ballot. And they're also requiring people to include sensitive, personal identifying information on the application.

This is going to open people up to identity theft because these applications are clearly marked and they're very easily identifiable pieces of mail. They're targeting the people who can't physically get to their clerk's office and people who either have to rely on the mail in order to get their application and then their ballot. They're also the same people who might not have a valid driver's license anymore. Like seniors who have up driving and given up their driver's license and are homebound. Disabled voters are going to be disproportionately impacted by this low income voters, as will Black and brown communities.

Michigan has many rural counties that have a lot of mail voters as well. So all those people are going to be impacted by the restrictions on requesting your absentee ballot, getting it in the mail. There are frankly more hoops to jump through in order to get it. People just won't do it. People don't want to send their personal identifying information through the mail.

Getting a ballot initiative approved is a pretty straightforward process: Collect signatures, raise awareness, earn more votes. It would seem a lot more complicated to stop people from signing a petition. What's the plan?

First we have to find where they are circulating the petitions and then we have to interrupt the process. We're mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to do just that. Clearly media is important, too, in getting the word out there to people who are unsuspecting and will fall for it or people who just believe in the democratic process and see a petition and think yeah, I want to get that on the ballot.

The scariest part about this particular initiative is that they have absolutely no intention of putting this on the ballot. It will just simply be adopted by our legislature and put into law.

OK, so how do you find out where they're doing this? Are there obvious locations where people generally circulate petitions?

It's just a lot of grassroots organizing. We created routes where we have a lot of petition-gathering experience, where we gathered signatures for Prop 2 in 2017 and then on the ballot in 2018. So we have a good idea of where to get signatures. We're using that information and we're actually constructing routes for volunteers and they're driving from place to place to place, looking for petition circulators and reporting them, using a special tool that we built. And then we can turn around and have a team sent out there to interrupt the process.

We want to get a good idea of what they're saying and whether they are wearing the same t-shirts or caps or whatever. We want to just tell people what's really in this petition and what it's really about because the petition circulators are saying two things right away that are blatant lies.

First of all, this is about election security because this will in fact, make our elections less secure and more inconvenient. It's going to lead to longer lines and more difficulty in accessing a ballot. They're also saying that that when people sign it, it's just going to end up on the ballot. Leaders have said publicly that this will simply be adopted by the legislature.

The overwhelming success of Prop 3 might mean people don't want to sign the petition, right?

That's part of the problem, right? So Prop 3 was extremely popular, but that was also pre-2020. But I think the 2020 election mixed up everything; the continued talk about the Big Lie and election fraud has been really been very divisive.

How long do they have to get this done?

They started collecting signatures in October, so they [technically] have like five months left. But if they decided to keep going after that, they would just chop off the first, however many days of signatures that they would gather.

So that time period keeps continues to roll. It depends on whether they want to get on the ballot or not, and because that's not an issue for them, they can do this for as long as they need to [during this session of legislature], until they get this thing done.

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