Michigan Senate votes to expand ID requirements amid push to change election laws

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved Wednesday an expansion of requirements for voters to confirm their identities before their ballots are counted, a key part of GOP lawmakers' plan to alter the battleground state's election laws.

The proposals, which survived party-line votes, are the first to pass the Senate of the 39-bill package that Republicans unveiled in March after former President Donald Trump lost his reelection campaign to Democrat Joe Biden. The GOP incumbent levied unsubstantiated claims that voter fraud cost him the race, helping to fuel a national push among Republican lawmakers to reexamine election laws.

Opponents of the Michigan bills, which impose new standards for both absentee and in-person voters, argued the requirements were "needlessly complicated" and said they were politically motivated to benefit Republicans. However, supporters of the legislation contended the policies were necessary to boost election integrity.

Trump supporter Odessa Schmidt, 40, of Novi, holds her "Count Legal Votes" sign during the rally at TCF center.

Fifteen of the Senate's 36 members spoke about the bills during a heated debate that lasted about an hour on the Senate floor. Afterward, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said the speeches were contentious because Republicans are "lying to people." The state already has voter ID requirements, Ananich said.

"People literally stormed the Capitol based on the president and others lying about it," the Democratic Senate leader said. "Instead of saying, 'No. That wasn't true. It was a fair election,' they're continuing to lie. And it's dangerous."

But Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, accused Democrats of "scare tactics" and said people already needed identification to purchase alcohol, rent an apartment and obtain a marriage license.

"It’s not creating a personal security risk," Theis said. "It’s not voter suppression. It’s not an undue burden. As a matter of fact, across the globe, ID is required to vote."

The Senate voted 19-16 for a bill that would require applicants seeking absentee ballots to provide their driver's license number, official state identification number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. Alternatively, under the legislation, they could also attach or present a copy of identification when they submit their applications.

The Senate approved another proposal that would change how voters who show up at polling places without official identification are treated. Currently, they can simply sign an affidavit and their ballot is counted with others on Election Day. Under the bill, which passed in a 19-16 vote, they would have to cast a provisional ballot. That means they must return and prove their identity within six day for their votes to be tallied.

The third bill approved Wednesday stipulates that voters who receive a provisional ballot must be notified of the six-day requirement for verifying their identity. It also passed in a 19-16 vote.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said Republicans were using non-existent fraud problems in the 2020 election to put people at risk for "actual fraud" by forcing them to share their personal information in a bid to obtain an absentee ballot.

"All this bill does is make a political statement to somebody’s base and increase the likelihood of identity theft in our state," Hertel said. "In what world do you believe that citizens want to give their Social Security numbers in order to vote?"

Likewise, Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said Republicans were still mad about former President Donald Trump's loss in November.

“Now you want to change the rules …, so that people who look like me get frustrated and decide not vote," said Santana, who is Black. "That’s your new political strategy to stay in power.”

But Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, argued that the legislation wasn't partisan. Both parties would benefit of the improved safeguards, he said.

"We hear a lot about how ‘There’s only this little bit of fraud’ and, therefore, nothing else is needed," McBroom said. "But just because you can’t say we caught this amount fraud isn’t somehow compelling proof that there wasn’t more that wasn’t caught."

Republicans view the identification requirements as among the most popular of their bills to change voting policies. A poll sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber last month found while 65% of registered voters said the state generally has elections that are safe and secure, 80% supported the idea of requiring every voter to present government-issued ID to cast their ballot. Only 16% opposed the policy, according to the survey of 600 registered voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

By a smaller margin, participants backed requiring voters using absentee ballots to send in a copy of their ID or bring it to the local clerk's office: 51% supported and 43% opposed.

Multiple GOP lawmakers cited the polling during Wednesday's debate. But Hertel said the survey didn't ask about how people felt about potentially submitting their Social Security numbers to get an absentee ballot.

Shira Roza, voting rights manager with the organization Promote the Vote, said the legislation is "aimed at interfering with registered voters making their voices heard at the ballot box." Promote the Vote led a successful campaign in 2018 to expand voting rights in Michigan, including allowing no-reason absentee voting, that voters approved with 67% support.

"Our legislature should heed the will of the people and take steps to move Michigan forward, rather than making voting more difficult by eliminating secure options for registered voters," Roza said.

Trump lost Michigan by about 154,000 votes, or 3 percentage points. While unproven claims of widespread wrongdoing have been rampant, bipartisan boards of canvassers, court decisions and dozens of audits performed by election officials have backed up the outcome.

Before the Senate began meeting in 2021, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said election oversight was among his highest priorities.

In March, Senate Republicans unveiled their 39-bill package. The proposals would bar Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from sending out absentee ballot applications unless they are specifically requested by voters, would increase supervision of ballot drop boxes and expand local canvassing boards in large counties. They would also bar local governments from providing prepaid postage for absentee ballot return envelopes.

Michigan state senator Ruth Johnson speaks about elder abuse exploitation and Senate reforms that would help prevent it, during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee held at the Oakland Board of County Commissioners auditorium in Pontiac, June 10, 2021.

Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, the former secretary of state, has called the changes "common sense." But Benson, the current Democratic secretary of state who was elected in 2018, has labeled them "poisonous" and an attack on democracy.

The bills approved by the Senate Wednesday will now go to the GOP-controlled Michigan House, where it's unclear how leadership will handle them. The House has been advancing its own election law changes, which have generally been less controversial than the Senate package.

Ultimately, the bills would have to gain the signature of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to become law, which is unlikely. However, the Michigan Republican Party has said it plans to help circulate petitions for a citizens' initiative that could institute voting law changes without the governor being able to block them.

The 2020 election remains the focus of many of Trump's most devout supporters in Michigan. On Thursday, a group of them plans to deliver thousands of affidavits to Shrirkey, calling for a so-called "forensic audit" of the vote.