Strict voter ID law approved in Michigan House

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led House on Wednesday night approved a strict voter identification proposal over strenuous objections from Democrats who argued the plan could disenfranchise properly registered voters.

Michigan voters without photo identification could still cast a provisional ballot under the controversial legislation, but they would have to bring an ID to their local clerk’s office within 10 days of an election in order for their vote to count.

The legislation seeks to “protect the integrity of every single Michigan citizen’s vote, because every vote is diluted if fraudulent votes are cast,” said Rep. Gary Glenn, R-Midland.

Current state law allows registered voters to cast a ballot without photo identification if they sign an affidavit affirming their identity under threat of perjury, an option 18,388 residents used in the Nov. 8 election, according to the Michigan Secretary of State.

Nearly half of those voters were in Wayne County, including 5,834 in Detroit.

“We are not aware of fraud related to the affidavit” option, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, whose office is reviewing the voter ID legislation and has not yet taken a position.

“There’s certainly no proof” that any voters who cast ballots without photo identification last month were committing fraud, but they or their peers could nonetheless face a “modern-day poll tax” under the legislation, said Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.

“This is going to cause confusion and chaos at the polls,” Irwin said. “There’s going to be arguments, voters aren’t going to understand, and long lines are going to get even longer. Maybe that’s the point.”

The main measure in the three-bill package passed the House at around 10 p.m. in a 57-50 vote, mostly along party lines, capping a long day in the lower chamber. The measure now heads to the Senate with just four full days left in the so-called lame-duck session.

Democrats argued the voter identification proposal would have a disproportionate effect on lower-income and minority voters, creating new barriers to participation for those who may struggle to obtain identification for various reasons.

“This bill will suppress the votes of those for whom voting is already a struggle,” said Rep. Fred Durhal III, D-Detroit.

But the package seeks to make it easier for Michigan residents to obtain the kind of identification that would be required to vote. The legislation would provide mechanisms for low-income residents to obtain free state ID cards or birth certificates needed to obtain one.

The legislation, as approved Thursday, includes an $8 million appropriation to finance “election modernization, voter education and implementation” of the new rules, $2 million for free birth certificates and $1 million for the free ID program. The appropriations would effectively make the law immune to voter referendum.

“We want everyone to be able to vote easily, but we want them to know their vote is being protected,” sponsoring Rep. Lisa Lyons, an Alto Republican and chair of the House Elections Committee, said shortly before the vote on her main bill.

The legislation would make Michigan one of eight states with a strict voter ID law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voter ID laws in several other states have been overturned by federal courts, but Lyons said the Michigan proposal is based on an Indiana law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005.

“This legislation is simple: In order to have your vote count, you must prove you are who you say you are,” she said, suggesting the voters could lie on an affidavit.

The proposal will help “deter and detect fraud, however widespread it may or may not be,” Lyons continued.