A new front is opening in Michigan’s voting wars that raises fundamental questions about how far defenders of fact-based elections and representative government must go to protect voting rights in an era marked by Republicans who deny results and spread lies about elections.
Republicans have launched ballot initiatives to bypass a gubernatorial veto and enact laws that would complicate voting, and sanction outside inquiries into close results. Voting rights groups and Democrats, in turn, are using the initiative process to amend Michigan’s constitution to close the veto loophole, and to affirmatively enshrine voting rights and balloting options.
There are three pro-voter proposed amendments. The first would close the veto dodge. The other two, affirming voting rights and options, would, if passed, lay the groundwork to strike down the GOP’s initiative-sparked legislation. But the latter two proposed amendments go to different lengths to block legislators and even the courts from rolling back voting rights.
“They’re all interested in what the ground rules all are,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, speaking of Michigan’s five competing ballot initiatives to enact laws or amend its constitution. “They’re also all interested in how these different political actors have power relative to one another, and how to restrict or expand that power.”
Michigan’s initiatives are responses to ongoing fights over its 2020 election, where Joe Biden officially beat Donald Trump by 154,000 votes out of 5.5 million cast. On February 11, its Board of State Canvassers finalized the 100-word summaries describing the latest measures to initiate legislation or amend its constitution. The next step is gathering signatures by July 11 to advance the GOP’s proposed laws or to put the amendments before voters in November.
The initiatives are part of a surge of more restrictive or permissive voting measures that have flooded state legislatures since the 2020 presidential election. But unlike states such as Arizona and Nebraska, where single ballot measures have emerged in addition to many bills proposed by legislators, Michigan offers the broadest spectrum of ballot initiatives that may complicate elections or construct guardrails against antidemocratic power grabs.
The faction seeking more onerous rules for voters, led by pro-Trump Republicans, wants to adopt legislation that was vetoed last October by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. They have turned to Michigan’s ballot initiative process, where signatures from 8 percent of the votes cast for governor (340,000) would refer the measure to the GOP-led legislature, which could then enact the law. (Laws initiated this way are exempt from vetoes.) A second potential law proposed by Trump allies would empower private contractors to audit election results, like Arizona’s much-maligned 2020 review that concluded Biden won after spending months casting doubt on the election’s results.
The GOP proposals have been met by countermeasures to amend Michigan’s constitution from proponents of more expansive voting rights. Amending a state constitution supersedes new law and establishes a basis to challenge existing laws. (The amendments need 425,000 signatures to get on Michigan’s November 2022 ballot.) Center-left groups are behind the three proposed amendments. The first would close the veto loophole. The other two proposals overlap in their enumeration of voting rights and voting options, but they differ in how far each goes to restrain conspiracy-driven legislation and courts from upholding laws based on unproven threats….