Vice President Harris in Detroit: 'Right to vote is as American as apple pie'

Detroit — In her first trip to Michigan since Election Day, Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday said "fighting for the right to vote is as American as apple pie,” as Republican legislators in Lansing press for changes to the state's voting system.

Harris spoke at a voting rights roundtable discussion at the TCF Center and emphasized the importance of continuing to vaccinate people against COVID-19. She also praised Democratic lawmakers in Texas who walked out Monday and risked arrest in a bid to halt a Republican overhaul of election laws during a special legislative session ordered by Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott. 

Harris, who is leading the Biden administration's initiative on voting rights, said the Texas legislators “are showing extraordinary courage and commitment." 

"I applaud them standing for the rights of all Americans and all Texans to express their voice through their vote, unencumbered," said Harris, noting she met with them recently at the White House.

“I will say that they are leaders who are marching in the path that so many others before did when they fought and many died for our right to vote.

“I do believe that fighting for the right to vote is as American as apple pie. It is so fundamental to fighting for the principles of our democracy.”

Harris spoke while sitting next to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who has opposed as "poisonous" multiple proposals in a GOP package on election reform, including a measure to bar the secretary of state from sending out absentee ballot applications unless requested and restrictions on absentee ballot drop boxes.

President Joe Biden is set to deliver a major speech Tuesday in Philadelphia about voting rights.

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, took aim at the Harris visit and what it considers the Biden administration's failure to address pressing issues.

“Too busy trying to shore up Gretchen Whitmer’s failing re-election campaign and peddling lies about election integrity efforts, Kamala Harris is ignoring real issues like closing the southern border and re-opening the U.S.-Canadian border," RNC spokeswoman Preya Samsundar said in a statement.

"With a majority of states re-opened, it’s time for the Biden-Harris administration to prioritize Michigan small businesses and the tourism industry’s recovery efforts by putting an end to this border crisis."

Last week, Harris announced a $25 million expansion of a Democratic National Committee campaign to boost voter registration and increase protections amid efforts by Republican-led legislatures in multiple states to change voting access.

Democrats have labeled the efforts "voter suppression," and Republicans have called them necessary to ensure "election integrity."

Before she left Detroit Metro Airport Monday evening, Harris told reporters she wanted to remind people “that they are at risk of having legislative bodies impede their right to vote if we don’t stand up and understand what’s happening and be more engaged.”

Vaccination efforts

Harris on Monday also delivered remarks at a vaccination mobilization event at the TCF Center, which was attended by Democratic U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, and attended a political fundraiser for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the evening. 

She said the act of getting vaccinated is the "very essence" of what the Bible says about "loving thy neighbor."

"It may be the person next door. It may be the man on the side of the road, and it may be a perfect stranger, and in the face of that stranger you see a friend," Harris said.

"That's what this is about. So by getting vaccinated, you are loving your neighbor."

Harris praised front-line workers who served during the pandemic including nursing home workers, food distribution volunteers, health care administrators and others as "heroes." She touted the Biden administration's progress in vaccinating millions of Americans, with 48% of the population fully vaccinated.

"We need to build on that progress now because there's still a whole lot of folks who are not vaccinated, and that is certainly true here in Detroit," Harris said. "So I'm here to say, thank you, congratulations, and we have more work to do."

A Harris staffer takes group photos of Vice President Kamala Harris with people in the audience at the TCF Center in Detroit on July 12, 2021.

Detroit has among Michigan's lowest vaccination rates with only 38.3% of residents 16 years and older having received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, compared with 62.2% statewide, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website.

About 31.5% of Detroit's adults are vaccinated compared with the state's 52.3% rate.

The vice president stressed the need to "get out the facts" and spoke of the administration's new push to go door to door in an effort to convince people to get inoculated. 

"Let's take it to the streets. Take it to the people. That's what we're talking about doing," Harris said. "Knock on those doors. 'Hello neighbor.'" 

Virtually everyone currently hospitalized with COVID-19 is unvaccinated, she said, as well as those who have recently died. 

The Detroit News reported last month that more than 99% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan between Jan. 1 and June 15 involved people who were not fully vaccinated against the virus, according to data from a statewide hospital association and state government modeling.

Harris on Monday warned the crowd of the uber-contagious Delta variant, quoting the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera in saying,"the shots are nowhere near as bad as the virus." 

"Let's do this in a way that we don't judge anybody. We're not looking down on anybody," Harris said. "But we do want to give them the information because nobody should have to live with any kind of sense of feeling regret when there's so much that's available to them."  

Among those in Monday's crowd was Shanay Whittaker, who said she hoped Harris would address vaccine hesitancy among Black men.

“There is a great correlation between low vaccination rates among African American men between the ages of 18 and 45, including my son,” the 44-year-old Detroit resident said.

“He does not want to take the vaccination. He's paranoid and plus of what he's learned from the Tuskegee experiment, which is inaccurate, and I had to correct him," she said. 

Whitmer at Monday's vaccination event said it had been a rough year and a half.

The Democratic governor stressed the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and urged those gathered to have conversations with people who haven't gotten a shot.

"They are showing if you lead with a good conscience, with a good plan, with the right priorities, and kindness you can make a big difference, and that's what the Biden-Harris administration has been doing," Whitmer said.  

At a small fundraiser attended by Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Harris called the governor “an extraordinary, courageous, brilliant, committed leader, not only for Michigan, she’s a national leader.”

“Her leadership has been the leadership during some of the most difficult times our country could imagine,” the vice president said of Whitmer inside the Detroit convention center. “Extraordinary during this pandemic where we saw an incredible loss of life, a loss of jobs, a loss of hope and she never waned.”

The TCF Center was a 2020 lightning rod for unsubstantiated election fraud claims. It also has been used as a field hospital for COVID-19 patients as well as a mass vaccination site by the city of Detroit.

TCF Center served as the tabulation location for Detroit's absentee ballots. Despite claims of fraud by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, bipartisan canvassing boards, the courts, audits and a recent Michigan Senate report found no credible evidence of fraud.

The TCF Center “is the epicenter for democracy and the fact that she’s here today to talk with Detroiters about our voting rights and about how important it is that we protect them, I’m proud that she’s chosen Detroit and Michigan to make that happen," Gilchrist said.

The TCF Center visit is the second time in as many weeks that the administration has visited a site directly tied to the former president's unproven election claims. Biden on July 3 toured a cherry farm in Antrim County, a GOP stronghold where human errors by election officials — later corrected — spawned a bevy of conspiracy theories amplified by Trump, who won the county.

Biden defeated Trump by 154,000 votes or nearly 3 percentage points in Michigan, where a record 5.57 million registered individuals voted — most by absentee ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Harris earlier in the day praised get-out-the-vote efforts in Michigan last fall during the pandemic.

“You had folks mask up and get to the streets to do what was necessary — to stand in line, to mail-in ballots, to vote. And you turned out extraordinary numbers," she said. "We fight every day so that all Americans, unencumbered, are able to express their voice through the ballot and through their vote."

Michigan voting bills

Harris' visit comes as the Michigan Legislature is considering numerous bills by Republican lawmakers to overhaul the battleground state's election laws. The package includes new standards for both absentee and in-person voters.

The GOP-led Legislature has introduced dozens of bills this year proposing changes to the state’s voting system, with the Senate introducing 39 at once and the House introducing about 40 over several weeks. 

Some of the more controversial proposals would require an in-person voter without a photo ID to cast a provisional ballot; require absentee ballot applicants to provide their driver’s license number, state identification number, the last four digits of their Social Security number or a copy of their identification; and block the mailing of unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

Some bills also would increase supervision of ballot drop boxes, ban prepaid absentee ballot return envelope postage and expand canvassing boards in large counties.

Other legislation would require additional training and certification of clerks and poll workers; eliminate May and August election dates and consolidate them in a June primary; and establish polling locations at senior housing facilities and clubhouses.

Opponents of the bills have said many new requirements are politically motivated to benefit Republicans. None of the bills have been sent to Whitmer, who is likely to veto some of the measures.

Vice President Kamala Harris waves to the press at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus on Monday, July 12, 2021. Harris is scheduled to hold or attend three events at Detroit's TCF Center.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, was among those who listened to Harris speak about voting rights and the vaccine to fight COVID-19. He praised the vice president for taking the issue on despite the GOP "talking points" about unsubstantiated voter fraud and myths about the vaccine.

“They’re also fueling this idea that COVID itself is some sort of a concoction of the deep state,” Kildee said. “She spoke truth. She brought up facts. And I think at the end of the day, the argument’s on our side, and she presented it really well.”

Harris had been set to travel to Michigan on June 28 as part of the national “We Can Do This” tour to urge more Americans to get vaccinated. Her trip was postponed after Metro Detroit experienced major flooding from a storm that dropped as much as 7 inches of rain in spots and caused major damage, shutting down roads and freeways.

From left, Democratic U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, plus Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, greet Vice President Kamala Harris at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus on Monday.

Staff Writers Craig Mauger, Beth LeBlanc and Ben Wilson contributed.