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Republicans seek Michigan election law changes after 2020 losses

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Senate Republicans unveiled 39 wide-ranging bills Wednesday to alter state election laws, targeting areas like absentee ballots and voter qualifications that were the focus of former President Donald Trump's campaign to overturn his 2020 defeat.

The proposals debuted 141 days after the Nov. 3 election, which prompted Trump's supporters to make unproven and false claims of fraud. The GOP incumbent lost Michigan by 3 percentage points or 154,000 votes, but the effort among some Republicans to discredit the outcome continues.

Absentee ballots are counted at the TCF Center in Detroit on Nov. 3, 2020.

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Senate Republicans contend that their new bills would ensure integrity and "restore trust" in the voting process. But Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said the plan was "nothing more than an extension of lies and deceit about the last election."

"Our elections are fair and safe and that has been the case under Republican administrations and Democratic administrations," Ananich said. "The fact that Republicans didn’t win as many races as they wanted to does not justify their attempt to silence voters."

Among the many proposed changes, the bills would bar Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from sending out absentee ballot applications unless they are specifically requested by voters. Benson, a Democrat, sent out applications to all registered voters in 2020 amid the pandemic, drawing criticism from Trump himself. The then-president said Michigan was going down a "voter fraud path."

The bills would also require applicants for absentee ballots to present or attach a copy of identification, overhaul large counties' canvassing boards and mandate that absentee ballot drop boxes be monitored by video recordings.

"This legislation includes common-sense measures that will protect the integrity of our elections by safeguarding the right for people to vote and ensuring our elections are safe and secure," said Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, who served as secretary of state in 2011-2018.

Senate GOP leadership referred the bills to the Elections Committee, which Johnson chairs. The Michigan Republican Party and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, touted the proposals.

"Senate Republicans are committed to making it easier to vote and harder to cheat," Shirkey said.

In the wake of the 2020 election, GOP lawmakers in many states have advanced proposals to change election policies. Some of their bills would limit voter access or erect new hurdles for individuals looking to cast ballots.

Michigan Sen. Ruth Johnson

The Michigan package includes a bill that would bar voters from using absentee ballot drop boxes after 5 p.m. on the day before Election Day. Local clerks must ensure that a drop box "automatically locks or is locked at 5 p.m. on the day before Election Day, and remains locked until after the election."

Another proposal would bar local governments from providing prepaid postage for absentee ballot return envelopes as some did to encourage participation last year. A bill would require voters without photo identification to vote through a provisional ballot, rather than signing an affidavit to vote, as can be done under current law.

Benson slammed the package in a Wednesday statement by saying many bills "will make it harder for citizens to vote." Likewise, Lansing Clerk Chris Swope, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said the package contains "some of the most egregious voter suppression ideas Michigan has seen."

Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, said the GOP plan "is an unconscionable resurrection of Jim Crow designed to keep Black and Brown Americans from fully participating in the democratic process."

The proposals would require the signatures of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to become law.

Many proposals appear to respond directly to criticism by Republicans about the Nov. 3 election.

Trump supporters focused on poll watchers and election challenger access at TCF Center, where absentee ballots were counted in Detroit, Michigan's largest city and a Democratic stronghold. Some of the GOP challengers said they couldn't stand close enough to see what was happening because of COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.

The new Senate bills would specifically allow election challengers and poll watchers to use cameras to videotape the tabulating of votes and expand the rights of challengers.

Under a bill introduced by Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, challengers would have the right to observe the election process at a "reasonable distance" that allows them "to clearly read and observe" lists of participating voters and tabulators.

The role of bipartisan county canvassing boards, which currently feature two Republicans and two Democrats, also became a focus of the attention in November. The Republicans on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers initially declined to certify the county's results before changing course and approving them on Nov. 17.

The Senate bills would give the boards seven more days to do their work, moving the deadline for local certification from no later than 14 days after an election to no later than 21 days.

Another proposal would increase the membership of canvassing boards in large counties. Counties with more than 750,000 people — currently Macomb, Oakland and Wayne —would have eight-member boards under the bill. Counties with more than 200,000 people would have six-member boards.

The GOP-controlled Legislature began holding joint oversight committee meetings on the election four days after it occurred. Lawmakers have issued subpoenas for records from Benson's office, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Livonia Clerk Susan Nash.

Trump supporters attempted to challenge Michigan's election in court, resulting in dozens of losses and no significant victories  in a two-month period.

In one of the most high-profile rulings, Detroit U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker, who was nominated by President Barack Obama, said a group of Republican plaintiffs were asking her to "ignore the will of millions of voters."