Michigan Senate approves controversial election changes, expanding ID requirements

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The GOP-controlled Michigan Senate supported a sweeping bill to change the battleground state's election laws Wednesday, setting up a potential confrontation with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is expected to veto the proposal.

The legislation, which was changed on the Senate floor moments before the vote, passed 20-15, along party lines. It would establish stricter requirements for voter identification and would ban election officials from sending out absentee ballot applications unless they are requested by voters. Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson broadly sent out absentee ballot applications ahead of the 2020 presidential election, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate bill would mandate that in-person voters present identification for their ballots to count and that those voting absentee submit their driver's license number, state personal ID number or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Paul Baranowski votes at the 19th precinct inside Heritage junior high school, in Sterling Heights, August 3, 2021.

Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, said a "long list of everyday transactions" require people to present photo identification. He mentioned buying beer and applying for state assistance. He said if someone got a COVID-19 vaccine, they likely had to show ID.

"Where's the outrage from across the aisle about that?" Nesbitt said. "There's a reason why 80% of Americans support showing photo ID to vote. It's commonsense."

The new version of the Senate bill now closely resembles the GOP-backed Secure MI Vote petition initiative, which aims to gather 340,047 petition signatures to put a policy proposal before the state Legislature. Under that scenario, the governor would have no say in whether it becomes law.

The bill approved Wednesday, however, still has to go to the GOP-controlled House and Whitmer's desk. It's unclear whether the House is on board with the new version of the legislation.

The governor has pledged to veto bills that restrict voting rights. On Sunday, she rejected four proposals that were less controversial than the new Senate bill, saying they perpetuated the "big lie" that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Republican Donald Trump.

The former president lost Michigan to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points. While he has maintained that there was widespread fraud, dozens of audits, court rulings and an investigation by the GOP-led Senate Oversight Committee have upheld the result. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats argued that the Republican bill was unnecessary because the last election did not show significant problems with Michigan's voting system.

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.

The Senate-backed bill would make the problem of long lines in urban areas worse, potentially suppressing the votes of people who face lengthy waits to cast their ballots, Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said. While Nesbitt mentioned the need to present ID to buy beer, Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, countered that ordering a beer is not a right.

"The only thing that we're talking about is the right to vote," Hertel said.

But Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, the bill's sponsor, labeled photo ID "the gold standard for verifying your identity."

Under the Secure MI Vote proposal and the Senate GOP bill, those without photo ID at the polls would have to cast a provisional ballot and return within a week to verify their identities for their votes to count. Both the revised Senate bill and the Secure MI Vote proposal ban the use of private funds to administer elections.

The new version of the Senate proposal now incorporates multiple elements of the 39-bill package Senate Republicans unveiled in March.

After the vote on Wednesday, the Michigan Senate appeared to accidentally vote to adjourn its session with other bills still on its agenda for the day. Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, moved for the chamber to adjourn soon after the vote on the main election bill.

Three Republicans — Sens. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek; Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton; and Jim Runestad, R-White Lake — joined the 15 Democrats in supporting the sudden adjournment.