‘Tame duck’? Strict voter ID bills stall in Senate

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Senate plans to adjourn for the year Thursday without taking up a strict voter identification proposal, Republican Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said Tuesday, prompting cheers from protesters outside the state Capitol.

Telling reporters the so-called lame-duck session may go down as a “tame duck,” Meekhof added that the upper chamber is unlikely to take up House-approved legislation to boost fines for “mass picketing” or subject state legislators and the governor to public records request laws.

The controversial voter ID proposal, approved last week by the Republican-led House, would have required voters to bring photo identification to their local clerk’s office within 10 days if they don’t have an ID on Election Day. Failure to do so would have voided their provisional ballot.

Supporters have championed the three-bill package as a way to protect against potential voter fraud, but critics argued that requiring a return trip to a clerk’s office would make voting harder for low-income residents with limited transportation options and could depress the vote in African-American communities.

“This is a hardship for indigent citizens in our cities, who may not have a vehicle or may not have access to reliable public transportation,” Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said Tuesday in a letter to legislators. “We should be increasing access and encouraging our citizens to use their constitutional right to vote, not making it more difficult.”

Meekhof hoped to discuss the voter ID package alongside other potential election reforms — including a secure form of no-reason absentee voting — with other Senate Republicans, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Michigan GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel.

But with three days left in the two-year legislative session, Meekhof said those discussions will have to wait until next year.

“We were intending to do some of that last week with Ronna and Ruth, but their schedules got jammed up” because of an unprecedented presidential recount, said Meekhof, R-West Olive. State and federal courts later halted the recount.

Strict voter ID laws have been ruled unconstitutional in some other states, but sponsoring Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto, has said she modeled her bill on a 2005 Indiana law that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The package proposed making it easier for residents to obtain the kind of identification that would be required to vote, including mechanisms for low-income residents to obtain free government ID cards or birth certificates.

“We haven’t done real well in the courts on election law, so I want to make sure that if we’re going to do something, we’re able to march it right through,” Meekhof told reporters, alluding to a ban on straight-ticket voting overturned this year by federal courts.

NAACP leader heartened

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, was part of a small group protesting the bills outside the Michigan Capitol when a Detroit News reporter told him about Meekhof’s decision to table the voter ID package.

“All right!” Anthony shouted as other protesters cheered. “That’s what he said? That’s the best news The Detroit News has delivered since I started reading it.”

The legislation was “rooted in suppressing the vote,” he argued. “I think it was rooted in diminishing enthusiasm and creating as sense of apathy that voting does not matter.”

While vote count irregularities were discovered in last week’s presidential recount, state election officials have stressed that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud on Nov. 8.

Current law allows voters to cast a ballot without photo identification if they sign an affidavit affirming their identity under threat of perjury. More than 18,000 Michigan voters used the affidavit option last month, according to the Bureau of Elections, including 5,834 voters in Detroit.

The Secretary of State’s office is not aware of any voter fraud related voters using affidavits to cast ballots, spokesman Fred Woodhams said last week.

“We know that voter fraud is not an issue in the state of Michigan, nor is it an issue really in the nation,” Anthony said. “You have about as much chance at committing voter fraud as you have for lighting to strike you.”

Transparency bills tabled, too

The mass picketing bills also tabled Tuesday would have made it easier for courts to shut down large demonstrations and fine protesters who block entrances to businesses, private residences or roadways.

The bipartisan public records request package, which seemed to gain momentum amid calls for transparency over the Flint water crisis, would have lifted blanket exemptions for legislators and the governor under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, which applies to other government officials around the state.

The transparency proposal needs “a lot of work,” Meekhof said, suggesting senators had questions about the version that passed the House by wide margins.

“I’m disappointed because it was such nonpartisan issue when it came out of the House with such overwhelming majorities,” said Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield. “If there were problems with it, I wish I would have heard about it.”

Moss said hopes to continue the the conversation with Meekhof next term.

“I’m willing to work with anybody to kind of move forward, do right by the citizens, shine a light on what we do here, and really catch us up with the other 48 states that have this type of transparency for their constituents and for the journalists that report on what we do,” he said.

The Michigan Legislature is expected to adjourn for the year Thursday. Any bills not approved by then would need to be introduced next year, effectively restarting the legislative process.

The upper chamber is under less pressure to finalize legislation this week because all members will return next year to complete their four-year terms. The House, by contrast, will see significant turnover in the New Year, ushering in a batch of new lawmakers elected in November.

“If there’s pressing things that are important for the people of Michigan, we may do those things in the last three days,” Meekhof said. “But again, my members have the next two years to work on their priorities.”