Michigan Gov. Whitmer asks business leaders to oppose new voting 'barriers'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directly asked the state’s business leaders on Wednesday to oppose efforts that would create “barriers to voting” as Republicans prepare a petition campaign to impose new identification requirements for casting ballots.

The request was part of the Democratic governor’s keynote address at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, a four-day gathering of business, civic and government officials on Mackinac Island.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

Whitmer's 35-minute speech focused heavily on political divisions in the battleground state, saying, at one point, that people should put time "on your calendar towards addressing" the topic. Residents must embrace that "disagreeing without being disagreeable is a strength," she said.

"I also ask you, as business leaders, to take a stand against efforts to undermine our elections and voting rights, including right here in Michigan," Whitmer told the audience.

The governor didn't specify the "new barriers to voting" she referenced. However, on Thursday, a day after the speech, the Board of State Canvassers is scheduled to meet to consider petition language backed by Michigan Republicans to institute new identification requirements for voting.

A committee called Secure MI Vote is pursuing an initiative to mandate that voters present photo ID to cast their ballots in person and those wishing to use absentee ballots submit their driver's license number, state personal ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

In response to Whitmer's comment, GOP consultant Fred Wszolek tweeted, "A real requirement that you provide proof of identity before voting strengthens elections. It doesn’t undermine them."

The petition effort comes after supporters of former President Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election in Michigan was rigged. Trump lost the state by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points, a result that has been upheld by dozens of audits, an investigation by the Republican-controlled state Senate and a series of court rulings.

In Michigan, residents can collect 340,047 petition signatures and put a policy proposal before the state Legislature, which is currently controlled by Republicans. If lawmakers approve the proposal, the governor has no say and can't block it.

Under current law, voters must either present an ID or sign an affidavit saying they are not in possession of ID to cast a ballot in person on Election Day. For absentee ballots, those who apply through the mail submit a form with a signature and must certify that their application is accurate. Signatures submitted with their absentee ballots are verified against signatures in the state's qualified voter file.

Under the Secure MI Vote proposal, those without photo ID at the polls would have to cast a provisional ballot and return within six days to verify their identities for their votes to count.

Secure MI Vote, which is tied to the Michigan GOP and Republican consultants, has said its goal is to "restore confidence in our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat."

Secure MI Vote is also seeking a ban on election officials sending out absentee ballot applications unless voters specifically request the applications.

In May 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck Michigan, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced her office would send absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million registered voters for the presidential election.

Republicans criticized the move, but a record 3.3 million absentee votes were cast in Michigan's Nov. 3 election. Benson has argued in favor of sending out absentee ballot applications to registered voters ahead of every federal election cycle going forward.

In a Wednesday interview, Benson said while she's frustrated about misinformation about the 2020 election, she plans to stay out of the public debate over the details of the Secure MI Vote proposal because her office will be handling and verifying the potential petition signatures.

On whether Benson plans to send out absentee ballot applications statewide for the 2022 election, she said her office has not made a decision. She noted that the move was made in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and new rights, established through a voter-approved constitutional amendment, to cast absentee ballots without having a specific reason for not voting in person.

cmauger@detroitnews.com