Where Washtenaw County's State Level Elected Officials Stand On Voting Law Changes

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State legislatures across this country are still battling over voting rights in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. Former president Donald Trump still insists that there was wide-spread voting irregularities and Michigan Republicans have responded by introducing changes to state voting laws. Democrats have universally responded by accusing the GOP of changing voting laws to make it harder for groups that generally vote for them, like racial minorities and city dwellers, to make it to the ballot box.

But where do Washtenaw County’s six state level elected officials stand in this fight? The Sun Times News attempted to reach out to all six of Washtenaw County’s elected officials in Lansing, to see where they stand on the voting laws; from State Senator Lana Theis, who is co-sponsoring ten of them, to those who oppose them. In a quintessential sign of our hyper-partisan times, they fall exactly along party lines.

“After the passage of the proposal in 2018, it is possible to register to vote, request an absentee ballot, fill out the ballot and submit it all without ever meeting your clerk. Nearly every interaction in society requires an ID. You need it to bank, to rent or buy a house, to receive healthcare or social services. We should be making the IDs easily accessible and absolutely requiring them to vote,” Washtenaw County’s only state level elected Republican, Senator Lana Theis, said in a statement to the Sun Times News.

Sen. Lana Theis. Image credit: senatorlanatheis.com.

The 2018 ballot proposal that Theis is referring to introduced no-reason absentee ballots to the state. That proposal passed by 2,775,387 yes votes to 1,373,151 no votes, according to Ballotpedia.

State Republicans have introduced 389 bills nationwide proposing changes to voting laws in the wake of the 2020 election where the GOP lost control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Some of them have already been enacted into law in some states.

Democrats nationwide have vowed to stop these laws, which they have dismissed as an attempt to suppress the vote after an election with a high turnout, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-profit law and policy organization attached to New York University. As a broad generalization in American elections, Democrats tend to do better in elections with larger turnouts and Republicans tend to do better in elections with low turnouts.

In the current hyper-partisan political culture, what someone thinks of the bills usually falls on political lines. Republicans say these bills will make it harder to cheat and easier to vote; whereas Democrats say that former President Trump took over the narrative that Democrats only win because of fraud and ran with it when he realized over a year before the 2020 election that he was going to lose, and never backed down.

“When I look at Michigan and I look at demographics, but also where population is growing and where we as Democrats have flipped seats in the last few elections; we as Democrats have flipped seats when women have come out to vote … where public education is critical to folks ... where there are more college educated folks and we have flipped seats where people care about workers and union rights,” House Democratic Majority Leader Donna Lasinski said. “We have a very diverse, very deep base to grow from. That is exciting. If the Republicans find that threatening and feel that it is only by suppressing the vote that they will be able to succeed in the future, [then] I believe that Americans will stand against that, united together.”

Donna Lasinski. Photo supplied by her office.

Lasinski’s fifty-second district covers Saline, Chelsea, Dexter and most of the rest of the county covered by this newspaper. It also happens to almost exactly cover the Washtenaw part of Theis’ senate district; the rest of which covers the entirety of Livingston County.

Theis is co-sponsoring ten of these bills; three of which have recently passed the Michigan State Senate and are being considered by the Michigan House. These include Senate Bill 303, which would require ID to vote, and establish a protocol for a provisional ballot if the individuals signatures on the identification and voter roll do not match, and kept for up to six days until the voters identity can be confirmed. The 1954 Michigan Election Law would be amended under Senate Bill 304, by requiring voters who need a provisional ballot to provide either a “utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check, or other government document to establish the voter’s current residence address if the identification for election purposes used does not contain the voter’s current residence address.”

State Senators also sent to the House, Senate Bill 285 would require absentee ballot applicants to either provide a copy of their ID, or their state drivers license card, or state identification number, or the last four digits of their social security number. If you don’t have access to that information, again, you would be provided a provisional ballot until you can get that information.

Other bills that Theis is co-sponsoring include Senate Bill 287, which would ban local government from providing pre-paid postage to absentee ballots. There is also Senate Bill 310, which would prohibit local authorities to send an absentee ballot to a voter that didn’t request one. And Senate Bill 299, which would require election inspectors to return voting results to board county canvassers by 12 noon, the day after an election takes place; who would then have to send it to the county clerk.

“This is a power grab on their part because they recognize that the electorate is more and more not leaning in their direction and they want to make sure that they can restrict, to the greatest degree possible – who votes, how they vote, how convenient it is for people to vote – with the end goal of maintaining their power,” Representative Yousef Rabhi (D – District 53) said. The Democratic Floor Leader, whose district covers the southern two-thirds or so of Ann Arbor, added “When you think about all the men and women who fought for our country who fought in the Revolutionary war and made our country it what it is … what we as a nation are based on is our fundamental rights as an individual and their right to vote; and we’re taking that away from people. It’s un-American, delusional to think that this election was in some bizarre world fraudulent because there’s no evidence there was any widespread fraud.”

Rep. Yousef Rahbi. Photo supplied by his office.

Heavily urban areas like Detroit, which have tended to vote Democratic for decades, took a longer time than usual to tally their votes due to social distancing requirements enacted to fight the Coronavirus, as well as delays with the postal system and the coronavirus causing more people than usual to vote absentee. Former President Trump and his allies site these delays as evidence of widespread fraud.

Washtenaw County Republican Chair David Frey brought up these problems in an interview with the Sun Times News, saying that the bills are intended to ensure fair and accurate elections.

“I don’t see what the problem is. They talk about disenfranchising the poor, or the underprivileged or a variety of segments of society,” Frey said. In dismissing the accusations made against his party by the Democrats, Frey added “It’s a serious fallacy to say that everybody can’t have an ID. … Everybody’s getting a free vaccine that wants one, right? So why can’t people get an ID? They’re talking about requiring people to get a vaccine passport. That’s a document. So there’s a segment of our government that wants people to get vaccinated and carry a document that says they’re vaccinated, but we can’t issue everybody an ID? It’s a fallacy. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t give everybody an ID?”

Washtenaw County’s other state senator, Democrat Jeff Irwin, who represents Saline, Ann Arbor, Milan, Ypsilanti and the other seven townships in the county, is going in the opposite direction of Theis with his Senate Bill 909. This proposal would establish a universal vote by mail system like what is already the norm in five states out west, where every registered voter would always get an absentee ballot at every election. Republicans have largely criticized those programs as being targets of fraud.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has vowed to veto any of the bills that make it to her desk.

“I think what’s going to happen is that they’re going to have these hearings over the next couple of months, they’re going to decide what are the most sellable aspects of this package. They’re going to try and make this a ballot initiative, try to gather enough signatures and put it on the ballot in the fall,” Senator Irwin said.

Sen. Jeff Irwin. Photo provided by his office.

A quirk of Michigan’s constitution allows bills to be passed in one of two ways. A bill can either be passed by both chambers of the legislature and signed into law by the governor, or it can be made into a ballot initiative.

In this method, any group that can get a certain percentage of verified signatures that are equivalent to a percentage of the votes for governor in the previous gubernatorial election, supporting a petition to create a new law or amend the state constitution will get the law on the ballot in the next election, circumventing the governor’s potential veto.

The percentage required depends on what type of ballot initiative is started; ranging from five percent for a veto referendum to repeal a law already on the books, to ten percent of the votes in the last election for governor, for initiatives proposing a state constitutional amendment. This was the exact same method in which Michigan voters approved no-reason absentee voting in 2018.

Republicans would need to gather over 340,000 verified signatures to get a package of changes to Michigan’s voting laws on the ballot. And even then, a majority of all Michigan voters would have to vote for it in the next election.

Congressional Democrats have responded to the efforts of state level Republicans by introducing the For The People Act, which passed through the House of Representatives last March. If it makes it through the evenly divided Senate, this act would be a top-down reorganization of American electoral law, with the aim of maximizing voter access to every election through expanding voting by mail, early voting, reforming campaign finance regulations and establishing an independent commission to redraw Congressional districts. Frey dismissed this legislation as unconstitutional.

Michigan was like most states in the union until recently, where the once-a-decade redrawing of federal Congressional districts was in the hands of the state legislature. Michigan recently changed this by establishing a non-partisan electoral commission to redraw districts with data acquired through the United States Census Bureau; whose full release data has been delayed until the end of September. This was done in an effort to end gerrymandering; a practice done by both major parties where state legislators in power in each state to draw congressional districts that favor their parties, by creating as many districts as possible where their likely voters outnumber voters likely to vote for the opposition.

In 2016, former President Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush to win the Mitten State with 2,279,543 votes to Hillary Clinton's 2,268,839.

President Biden won Michigan last year by over 150,000 votes largely by relying by absentee ballots. Michigan saw 71 percent turnout in the 2020 election, according to the Associated Press. President Biden flipped the state back from former President Trump by 2,804,040 votes, compared to Trump’s 2,649,852 votes, according to the Michigan Secretary of State.

“I would hope that my colleagues across the aisle would want a more engaged electorate. I worry that that’s not the case,” Representative Felicia Brabec (D – 55) said. “Some of these bills aim to limit that voting. We know the numbers that we know from the last election, and how engaged folks were. It seems like these bills are a response to that engaged electorate.”

Rep. Felicia Brabec. Photo provided by her office.

Brabec’s district covers Pittsfield, York, Augusta and Ann Arbor Townships, as well as the northern one third of Ann Arbor.

When asked what they liked in the proposed voting bills, not all of the GOPs proposals were rejected by the elected officials interviewed for this article. Brabec, for example, said she likes the Republican’s proposed Senate Bill 274, which would allow 16 year old’s registering for drivers license to pre-register in advance to vote when they turn 18. Senator Irwin also said that he supported legislation that would increase election training for township and city clerks, who actually run elections.

Former President Donald Trump was hardly the first Republican to raise alarm about fraud in American elections, but he was the one who has arguably gone the furthest with it. During his initial run for the White House in 2016, Trump started saying that the only way he would lose against then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would be if the vote was rigged.

The 2020 election was unusual in part because of the health precautions that officials introduced to protect voters during the Coronavirus pandemic, which partially resulted in an unprecedented increase in the number of voters choosing to cast their ballots through the mail, as President Trump has frequently done himself. He even voted by mail himself in the 2020 election, according to NPR and the Palm Beach Post.

Election results took several days to count, partially because of the pandemic and partially because of changes made to operations at the United States Postal Service by the Trump Administration, which were much criticized by Democrats. Between November 3, 2020 and January 6 2021, the Trump Administration and its allies launched dozens of lawsuits challenging how states counted votes.

Two of the cases went before the Supreme Court, but all but one of the cases were dismissed when they went before an actual judge, all while Trump’s then-legal team waged a war of words through the news media. In the end, none of the Trump team’s lawsuits were successful.

After this failed, Trump held a “Stop The Steal” rally at the Ellipse, a large park in Washington D.C. between the Washington Monument and the White House. Amongst other things, Trump and his allies in Washington encouraged Trump’s supporters to march the mile and a half or so east to the United States Capitol Building.

A large number of protestors remained outside of the seat of the legislative branch, but dozens didn’t. Hundreds of people have been arrested for breaking windows and storming inside Capitol as the overwhelmed Capitol Police hurriedly evacuated lawmakers into a secure bunker. Untold hundreds of hours of video evidence, much of which was filmed by the insurrectionists themselves, shows that were there to keep the election from being certified, but only succeeded in delaying the certification by a few hours.

The Department of Justice is currently investigating and charging hundreds of others charged with breaking and entering into the building while Congress was going through its ceremonial task of certifying the votes already approved by county clerks and state legislatures from all fifty states. The alleged-insurrectionists are being charged with everything from breaking and entering to trying to interfere with a public proceeding. A Capitol Hill Police officer was among the five people who were killed.

Democratic Representative Ronnie Peters (D – 54), whose district covers the Ypsilanti area, did not formally respond to multiple requests for comment in this article.

Image credit: Jason Gillman at pixabay.com. 

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