May 19, 2024 1:35 pm
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Michigan Lawmakers Pass ‘Historic’ Voting Rights Legislation: Here’s What it Would Do

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by Anna Gustafson, Michigan Advance

After 60% of state voters in November approved a constitutional amendment making sweeping changes to Michigan elections, lawmakers this week passed legislation to enact those reforms and included $46 million in their Fiscal Year 2024 budget to implement the amendment known as Proposal 2.

“This is a huge change,” state Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing), chair of the House Elections Committee, told the Advance on Thursday. “It provides so many options for voting; Michigan has never had such a huge expansion of voting access. I think this really makes voting accessible to everyone.”

The House and Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday gave their final approval to a package of eight bills that would implement the changes approved by about two million voters in November’s election and vastly reshape Michigan’s elections landscape.

The legislation now goes to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her expected signature.

“This is a huge win for Michigan voters and all those who turned out last year,” state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), the chairman of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, told the Advance Thursday. “We’re excited that this passed. Just about every bill passed in the Senate with bipartisan support.

“I’m proud to have led this effort,” said Moss, who was charged with crafting the Proposal 2 implementation legislation and ushering it through his elections committee. “… Michigan voters stepped up and said, ‘I want more access to the ballot and less barriers.’”

There was some bipartisan support for the package. Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), for example, co-sponsored Senate Bill 373, which expands photo identification options for voters beyond those that are state-issued and includes photo IDs from the military, tribal agencies and educational institutions. 

Other Republicans, however, were critics of the legislation. House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.) issued a statement on Tuesday accusing House Democrats of “continuing their push to chip away at most basic voter security protections.”

Some Republicans, including Hall and Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.) said the package goes beyond the reforms passed by voters in the November election. During Wednesday’s Senate session, Johnson spoke against Senate Bill 367, the original version of which would implement at least nine days of early voting – and up to 29 days of early voting if election officials choose to do so. The bill that ultimately passed was updated to also allow Michigan municipalities with a population of at least 5,000 people to begin processing and tabulating absentee ballots eight days before the election. All other communities could begin counting their absentee ballots at 7 a.m. on the Monday before Election Day.

“I feel it’s unnecessary as very few jurisdictions in our state currently have trouble reporting their results shortly after Election Day has concluded,” Johnson said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “But this will open up many more opportunities for improprieties in our elections.”

Democratic lawmakers disagreed. Moss said Senate Bill 367 – which was updated to include language from Senate Bill 387, which he introduced earlier this month – is meant to deter disinformation akin to that which spread about the 2020 election as absentee ballots were counted.

The lie pushed by many Republicans that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election emerged, in part, after Michigan had to count a record number of absentee ballots. That protracted count of absentee ballots led to right-wing disinformation about the 2020 election spreading across the country, which political experts said has weakened democracy in Michigan and across the country and shaken people’s faith in democratic institutions and norms.

“It will give people the sense that their vote counts, that the results are accurate and that there are no lingering questions as our ballots are counted because the counting will be completed much earlier,” Moss said. 

Moss noted that Michigan will now join other states that allow for the early processing of absentee ballots – including Republican-led states like Florida and Texas.

“Heading into the 2020 presidential election, we all knew there was going to be a record number of absentee ballots submitted,” Moss said. “Nevertheless, the Republican majority refused to mitigate the issue ahead of the election.

“As a result, we know the counting of these ballots continued into the wee hours of the morning and into the next day, and that’s when all this chaos permeated,” Moss continued. “We should’ve resolved this before 2020, but it took our Democratic-majority to get this issue done.”

Following the November election, Democrats took control of the state House and Senate in January – it was the first time in nearly 40 years the party had control of both chambers.

Elected officials and voting rights advocates lauded lawmakers for passing the package.

“This is a historic day for Michigan voters and an important victory for our democracy,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday. “These bills are the result of a truly collaborative process involving leaders on both sides of the aisle. They enact expanded voting rights and provide the necessary flexibility to county, city and township clerks across the state to administer the new reforms.

Benson specifically thanked Moss and Tsernogloufor their “thoughtful leadership and hard work to pass this legislation quickly so that our department, the Bureau of Elections and clerks can prepare for the presidential primary election in February.

Moss and Tsernoglou have since January led efforts to craft and pass the election reform legislation. As part of that work, Moss convened a workgroup of stakeholders to collaborate on the bills, which included Tsernoglou, policy experts from the Secretary of State’s office, Promote the Vote – which developed Proposal 2, the Michigan Association for County Clerks, and the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

“We stand ready to implement the new laws and carry out smooth and successful elections in 2024 and in the years after,” Benson added.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said clerks are ready to implement the changes emanating from Proposal 2, but said the task has been made increasingly difficult because Republican legislators did not give the two-thirds support needed to grant immediate effect for the election reform package. Because of that, it currently remains up in the air when the package will go into effect. That, Byrum said, leaves already stressed election officials “in limbo,” particularly in light of the fact that it also remains unclear if Michigan will have its presidential primary in February or March 2024.

“It’s like we have a one-pager on how to run an election completely different than we ever have before,” Byrum said on Thursday. “As election administrators, we like to have written manuals, rules and procedures, and it’s difficult to get that guidance when there isn’t immediate effect yet.

“It’s just not fair to election administrators who want to serve their voters,” Byrum added.

Khalilah Spencer, board president for Promote the Vote, praised the lawmakers for passing the bills and said the state now needs to focus on funding to run the state’s elections and implement the new changes. 

“We need to work together to make sure we adequately fund our elections,” Spencer said in a prepared statement. “Michigan’s elections are run by over 1,500 local election officials. It’s the most decentralized system anywhere in the country. That system costs money, and the legislature must support our election system and value it as a top priority.”

In their $82 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2024, lawmakers included $46 million for the Michigan Department of State to implement Proposals 1 and 2. Lawmakers passed the budget on Wednesday; Whitmer is expected to quickly sign the legislation.

Voters passed Proposal 1 in November; it modifies term limits for Michigan’s Legislature to allow lawmakers to serve a combined 12 years in the House and Senate. It also requires the Legislature to pass a law requiring the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and each member of the Legislature to file an annual financial disclosure report.

Cheri Hardmon, Benson’s senior press secretary, told the Advance on Thursday that the $46 million should be sufficient.

“We’ve secured funding for equipment and staffing costs for local clerks,” Hardmon said. “If more funding is needed for local clerks to implement Proposal 2, lawmakers have committed to provide additional support.

“We still believe that the Legislature must do more to fund elections in our state,” Hardmon continued. “It has been decades since the Legislature has, under its own initiative, led on local election funding. We also believe that every statewide election should be paid for by the state.”

The $46 million in the state budget will fund prepaid postage, drop boxes and early voting, Hardmon said. She added the Bureau of Elections has already launched efforts to provide clerks across the state with mailing authorizations for each jurisdiction to cover return prostate for abstain voter applications and absent voter ballots. Additionally, the department has put out a request for proposals for drop boxes, which Hardmon said would “provide communities with options at a bulk rate if they choose to purchase through us.”

The budget also creates a fund of up to $30 million in “incentive grants” to fund early voting across the state. The Department of State is currently working to determine the guidelines for that funding.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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