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Suit seeks to block Michigan restrictions on helping voters

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Democratic group is suing Attorney General Dana Nessel in federal court over Michigan laws that criminalize certain voter assistance efforts.

The Priorities USA super political action committee filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Detroit U.S. District Court less than two weeks after filing a similar lawsuit against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson over other Michigan voting laws.

Priorities USA described itself as a “nonprofit, voter-centric progressive advocacy and service organization" when it asked the court Tuesday to rule unconstitutional Michigan laws that criminalize the busing of voters to polling locations and the assistance of voters in submitting applications for absentee ballots.

Michigan's bans “make it even more difficult for voters for whom voting is already difficult— in particular, voters without access to private transportation — to vote,” the lawsuit said. “These voters include senior voters, minority voters, voters who are disabled, and low-income voters, who traditionally use absentee voting and lack access to private transportation at greater rates.”

The lawsuit argues the state laws are an undue burden that violate constitutional rights to free speech, association and equal protection. The filing asks the court to stop Nessel’s office from enforcing the laws.

Nessel is the subject of the lawsuit because, as attorney general, she would be tasked with “prosecuting the laws of the state of Michigan.” Her office had not been served with the lawsuit as of Wednesday morning, said spokeswoman Kelly Rossman McKinney.

The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, where Democratic-nominated judges hold a 14-6 advantage and are more likely to be selected in the random draw process. 

The lawsuit seeks to "weaken Michigan election laws that were put in place to stop voter fraud," Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said in a statement Wednesday. The party will fight "any attempt to undermine" the security and integrity of state elections, she said.

"In states without strong absentee ballot protections, we have seen numerous examples of massive vote harvesting and other forms of election fraud," Cox said.

Priorities USA argued that the ballot initiative expanding voter rights in Michigan and approved by voters in 2018 can only take full effect once the state ensures “all eligible voters have an opportunity to make it to the polls.”

The group plans “to make contributions and expenditures” in 2019 and 2020 “in the millions of dollars to educate, mobilize, and turn out voters in state and federal elections.”

The efforts would include funding voter transportation to the polls and absentee ballot get-out-the-vote activities that would include collecting absentee ballot applications, actions currently prohibited by state law.

Hiring transportation for a voter who is otherwise physically capable of walking is a misdemeanor in Michigan and punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $500 fine. The lawsuit argues the statute clashes with federal regulations, which allow “a corporation or labor organization” to provide transportation to the polls.

In 2018, Uber partnered with #VoteTogether and Democracy Works to transport voters to the polls across the country. It was unable to do so in Michigan because of the state law barring such activity, according to the lawsuit.

Michigan’s absentee voter law bans people from possessing another voter’s absentee ballot application, unless the person is family, a registered elector, clerk or mail carrier.

It bans third parties from helping to deliver an absentee ballot application, unless the person is a registered voter and is “affirmatively” asked to provide assistance. In other words, a volunteer cannot offer the assistance unless first asked by the voter.

Priorities USA filed a lawsuit against Benson in late October over the elimination of absentee votes because of discrepancies between a voter’s signature and other documents filed with election officials.

The lawsuits against Benson and Nessel were filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, where Democratic-nominated judges hold a 14-6 majority.

The lawsuit comes nearly a year after Priorities USA Foundation contracted a third party to send hundreds of public records requests to clerks throughout Michigan asking for copies of ballots and accompanying materials from the November 2016 election.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com