Republicans Have A Bold Scheme To Hijack MI’s Elections Rules. Will They Pull It Off?

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Nearly three months after the head of Michigan’s Republican Party unveiled an audacious plan that would allow GOP legislators to circumvent the state’s Democratic governor’s veto to pass restrictive voting laws, the contours of the scheme remain murky. 

Republicans in Michigan’s statehouse have been slow to coalesce around their election overhaul package, while the signature-collection effort that the gambit will require has yet to manifest.

The uncertainty has left Democrats and voter advocates in the state on pins and needles. Republicans and their allies still have time to put their election overhaul plan in motion, but they’ve fallen well behind the expected timeline, leaving their opponents guessing about what exactly they’ll be up against.

“We really thought we would have had more information by now,” said Merissa Kovach, the ACLU of Michigan’s policy strategist. 

“I don’t know if it is is an indication that they are not as organized as anticipated,” Kovach told TPM, while noting that there appeared to be a focus on tightening Michigan’s voter ID rule, based on what lawmakers have prioritized so far. 

A Plan To Circumvent Michigan’s Democratic Governor

Republicans in Michigan’s legislature have introduced scores of bills targeting the state’s election rules, just as Republicans have in states all across the country. Some of them would make it harder to vote. Others would overhaul the process of counting and certifying results in a way that appears to nod to conspiracy theories about President Trump’s loss in the state and would make it easier for bad actors to disrupt the process going forward.

But unlike the half-dozen or so GOP-controlled states that have made their restrictive proposals law, Michigan has a Democratic governor who has vowed to veto the partisan bills. Enter a scheme first outlined in March by state GOP chair Ron Weiser. Republicans, Weiser said then, intended to take advantage of a process in Michigan law that would allow the GOP legislature to adopt a measure without it going on the ballot, or getting the sign-off of the governor.

Under the process, such an election overhaul would instead just need 340,000 signatures, and then the legislature could make it law without the governor having a say.

When Weiser described the plan at a meeting with local activists, he said the petition measure would be shaped around bills being considered by the Republican legislature, including a 39-bill package that was unveiled by the Senate the day before his remarks. 

A petition drive doesn’t require the legislature to pass the measure first. But Republicans may attempt to do so anyway: they have stated openly that having Gov. Whitmer veto such a package first would energize the petition effort. Outside observers expected the effort to launch in the summer, while the weather was ideal for signature gathering.

The summer break the legislature will take next month, however, is tightening the timeline for that sequence of events. And the state GOP, for all of its big talk in the spring, is now playing down what formal involvement it will have in such an effort. 

“We heard a lot about [the petition drive] at the beginning of the process when they introduced the bills,” said state Sen. Paul Wojno (D), a former election official who sits on the elections committee that has been having hearings on the measures. “But the talk of petition drive has seemed to have died down, unless they want to work somewhat clandestinely and then drop it and promote it more aggressively at some point.”

What’s Been Floated In The Legislature

The Senate’s original package of proposals sought to retool the protocols that thwarted Trump’s 2020 election reversal crusade while also targeting mail voting, which Michigan voters expanded in the state, with a 2018 ballot initiative, after years of GOP legislative resistance.

Some of these measures have been watered down as the Senate’s election committee held frequent hearings, but only three of the actual bills — all having to do with voter ID — have made it out of committee. That has led some in the state to believe a future petition drive could focus just on toughening up the state’s voter ID rules. The new measures would eliminate Michigan’s longstanding option for those without IDs to sign an affidavit instead. Under the bill, non-ID holders would be forced to vote provisionally and later prove their identity, a much more cumbersome process. Another bill passed out of committee requires absentee voters to submit certain ID numbers when voting by mail.

Christopher Thomas, a former Michigan elections director who worked under secretaries of state of both parties, called the measures “suppressive” and said lawmakers had for years have been interested in toughening up the state’s ID law.

But, he noted, voter ID also polls well, which could make the measures ideal for a petition drive.

“They can set it up as a guaranteed win if they do it right,” Thomas said. The Senate’s Election Committee Chairwoman, Sen. Ruth Johnson (R), did not not respond to TPM’s inquiry.

A Lack Of Public Coordination

It’s worth noting, however, that those plotting a petition drive don’t have to wait for the legislature to move, and at least one grassroots group has a plan of its own. A group calling itself the Coalition to Rescue Michigan says it plans to mount a drive with measures that would, among other things, ban ballot drop boxes, give county canvassers the ability to rescind their certification votes, and increase volunteer election challengers’ free rein at polling sites.

Back in December, another group called Secure MI Vote popped up in public disclosure filings, but there have been few hints about what it is up to — besides that its listed treasurer is the state GOP chair’s chief of staff, according to the Detroit News.

In a call with local media last week, the party’s executive director Jason Roe reportedly said the GOP would not be running its own petition effort, but instead referred to a drive being launched by an unnamed entity that the GOP would support. TPM was unable to get a party spokesperson to elaborate on Roe’s comments.

Still, the Republican effort has not been as unified and speedy as Democrats and voter advocates were expecting. Some conservative activists have complained the Senate package hasn’t gone far enough to restrict mail voting, and the House has had an entirely different approach to overhauling the state’s elections rules. Its elections committee started with more benign bills, with some advancing with bipartisan support. But in recent weeks, the House Republicans have been rolling out their more extreme, partisan proposals.

The processes in the legislature are not matching up,” said Sharon Dolente, a senior advisor for Promote the Vote Michigan, which spearheaded the 2018 ballot access initiative. “Perhaps the common wisdom that one would have of jamming these through, in order to allow the governor to veto them, to then go out into the field with your petition — if that’s still what they’re doing, they’re doing it quite slowly.”

Still things can move very quickly in Michigan’s legislature; a bill can get out of committee and get approved by the full chamber all in the same day. And even if the legislature can’t get a package to the governor for her veto until the lawmakers come back in the fall, that still leaves a window — albeit a tight one — to gather signatures for a measure that the legislature could adopt by the end of the year.

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