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House advances bills toughening voter ID requirements

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House approved legislation along party lines Wednesday that would toughen Michigan's voter ID requirements by eliminating the ability for ID-less voters to vouch for their identity through an affidavit. 

Instead, the legislation would require voters lacking an ID at the voting booth to fill out a provisional ballot that would not be counted until and unless the voter brought proof of identification and residency to a clerk's office within six days of the election. 

The House committee substituted amended proposals for the two controversial Senate bills and would tie the bill to other legislation making all state IDs free. 

The tougher ID verification bills passed along party lines 58-52 on Wednesday, and the legislation removing fees for state IDs passed by a same margin. 

Iantha Robinson (from right) is assisted by Detroit Precinct 282 poll workers Johnnie Wilford at the Calvary Presbyterian Church during Michigan's Aug. 4, 2020 primary election.

The House also added requirements that any provisional ballots be tabulated by the county board of canvassers and that the Secretary of State's department add voter signatures to the electronic pollbook so signature matching could be conducted for in-person voters lacking identification.

"My goal is that every eligible voter is able to vote freely, secretly, independently and securely, and I think that this bill moves in that direction," said Rep. Ann Bollin, the Brighton Township Republican who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee. 

The House also passed a bill 56-54 Wednesday that allocated $1 million to offset the cost of putting signatures in the electronic pollbook and removing fees for state identification.

Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, criticized the Legislation on the House floor Wednesday, calling it "nothing but modern day Jim Crow laws created to mute the already voiceless."

"This is supposed to be the American dream, right?" Yancey said. "But it's not a dream, not a dream at all. It is actually a nightmare for many Black and Brown folks.”

The House Elections and Ethics Committee earlier Wednesday did not consider a third Senate bill by Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, that passed alongside the two in-person ID bills earlier this month. The Theis bill would require an absentee ballot applicant to present a copy of identification to the clerk either in-person or by mail or provide their driver's license number or last four digits of their Social Security number.  

Bollin said the bill could be looked at in the future, but said "it needs works."

The legislation, she said, would require seniors and members of the military to provide a copy of identification even if "they're not physically able to provide that additional documentation."

"I think that hinders their ability to vote," said Bollin, who also voiced concerns about access to portions of an individual's Social Security number.

Other people testifying Wednesday expressed concerns about the legislation and the additional burden it would place on voters without identification as well as the clerks who would have to process the provisional ballots.

In the 2016 general election, more than 18,000 Michigan voters relied on affidavits and, in 2020, about 12,000 voters filled out affidavits, said Merissa Kovach of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. 

"Our top concerns are that these bills will affect tens of thousands of voters, likely lead to disenfranchisement of many of them, put them at a heightened scrutiny by election officials," Kovach said. "It might discourage eligible but unregistered voters from participating due to costs, administrative burdens and the logistics of getting a qualified ID."

Republican lawmakers argued during the hearing that the ID requirement is no different that what is asked of people when they board a plane, buy alcohol or open a bank account. 

But Adam Reames with the Department of State noted those tasks are not constitutional rights on par with voting. 

"This isn’t just a convenience that we’re offering the citizens," Reames said. "This is the citizen's opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

Passed along party lines, the in-person ID bills were the first of a 39-bill Senate elections package to be passed through the Senate chamber. 

The House has offered its own election changes, including two bills passed by the full chamber Wednesday. 

One of those would require the secretary of state to develop and conduct training for local clerks regarding how to verify the signature on an absentee ballot application matches a voter's registration signature in the qualified voter file.

Michigan law requires clerks to match required signatures on absentee ballot applications and absentee ballot envelopes with the voter signature on file to ensure the person submitting the ballot is the same one registered to vote in Michigan. 

But state law doesn't define what it means for signatures to "agree sufficiently."

In March, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray ruled invalid Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's guidance to clerks in October that instructed them to presume the accuracy of absentee ballot signatures, in large part because she didn't go through the proper rule-making process before issuing the directive.

The bill passed 107-3 Wednesday. 

The Department of State was neutral on the signature training bill, but clerks associations indicated support for the plan.

Another bill would allow a city or township clerk to offer an annual application for an absentee ballot for each election in a year. It could not be sent our more than 75 days before the first election of the year.

The bill passed 106-4 Wednesday. 

The Department of State and Michigan Association of County Clerks are neutral on the annual application proposal. But the ACLU of Michigan and Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks indicated support for the proposal.