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Crowds gathered outside of the TCF Center as worried Republicans sounded the horn for backup to come to Detroit, while equally concerned Democrats did the same.

Detroit Free Press

Democratic Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist spoke out Thursday against a slew of election bills introduced by Senate Republicans, calling them an attempt at suppressing voter turnout and condemning the state Republican Party for pursuing a plan to get around any veto of the legislation by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as anti-democratic. 

Senate Republicans recently introduced a package of 39 bills proposing major changes to Michigan elections that voting rights advocates and election officials say would make voting harder. Whitmer has said her pen is ready to veto any legislation that would disenfranchise voters, but the Michigan Republican Party says it is considering ways to ensure the legislation is enacted without Whitmer’s approval before the 2022 midterm election. 

Under the Michigan Constitution, the Legislature can adopt laws that are not subject to the veto power of the governor if a petition initiative gathers enough signatures. Michigan Republican Party chairman Ron Weiser outlined the party’s plan to pursue a petition initiative during a March 24 meeting of the North Oakland Republican Club, according to a video posted on Facebook.  

“I think it’s anti-democratic,” Gilchrist said of the petition drive during a news conference. “They want to take this really short path, this minority policy-making path.” A petition would need approximately 340,000 valid signatures, according to Mark Brewer, an election law attorney at Goodman Acker and former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

“It’s circumventing the will of voters from a few years ago,” Gilchrist said. 

In 2018, Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that expanded voting access in the state, including allowing all registered voters to vote absentee for any reason. In 2020, more than 3.3 million Michiganders took advantage of their right to vote absentee in an election that saw record turnout. 

But Gilchrist said that Michigan Republicans “want to undermine voter turnout in 2022.” 

Bills proposed by Senate Republicans would require voters to submit a paper photo copy of their ID along with their absentee ballot application, prohibit them from returning absentee ballots using a drop box after 5 p.m. the day before an election, ban clerks for providing prepaid postage for absentee ballot return envelopes and bar the secretary of state from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications or making the application available on the Department of State’s website. The package would also impose strict ID requirements for in-person voting. 

Voting rightsgroups say the package will erect barriers to voting, and election officials, including Republican clerks, have also raised concerns about the impact on voters. 

Grosse Ile Clerk Ute O’Connor, a Republican, said the proposed changes go against the spirit of the constitutional amendment approved by voters. “I think the voters spoke very loudly,” she said. “This is like a knee-jerk reaction from a party that didn’t win as many races as it wanted to.” 

Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, a Republican who serves as co-chair of the Michigan Association of County Clerks’ Legislative Committee, said he wasn’t sure what problem the bills were aimed at solving. 

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But Weiser says he’s committed to seeing the legislation enacted. During the meeting of the North Oakland Republican Club, Weiser said the legislation will “create an opportunity for us to have a fair election in 2022” and that the party plans to pursue a petition initiative if Whitmer vetoes it.

Ted Goodman, director of communications for the Michigan Republican Party, wrote in an email that the party was “seriously considering alternative options to ensure the voice of the people are heard” should Whitmer veto of any of the bills proposed by Senate Republicans. “We have ways to implement these necessary reforms if the governor keeps playing partisan political games.” 

Brewer said that if the Michigan Republican Party pursues a petition initiative, it could trigger opposition efforts such as a “decline to sign” campaign. “There could be people who would stand next to circulators and they have a right to do that under the First Amendment and say, ‘you don’t want to sign this petition because it could suppress voting rights’ or whatever the message is,” Brewer said. 

But if the party gathers enough signatures, the Legislature would have 40 session days to adopt the proposed law. At that point, there are two ways to stop the law from being enacted, Brewer said.

Opponents of the law could file lawsuits or launch a referendum petition drive that would entail gathering signatures to suspend enactment of the law until voters have a chance to vote on it in 2022. Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United // Let America Vote Action Fund, who joined Gilchrist on the call, said her organization would contemplate legal challenges as well a grassroots effort to oppose the Republican Party’s signature gathering. 

Gilchrist and Muller also urged federal lawmakers to take action, calling on the U.S. Senate to take up sweeping voting rights legislation passed by the U.S. House as a way to preempt what they called a voter suppression effort by Republicans across the nation. 

Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at chendrickson@freepress.com or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen .

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