Peters, Stabenow press for passing election reform bills in 'splintered' Senate

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan's Democratic senators pointed Wednesday to Republican efforts to rewrite election laws in Lansing and other state capitals as driving the need to change federal election laws in Congress to protect access to the ballot box. 

In a speech on the Senate floor, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township highlighted a bill introduced in the Michigan Legislature that would "lock up" absentee ballot drop boxes before Election Day, and another that would prevent state election officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request them. 

He urged other senators to back the pair of voting rights bills pending before the chamber, saying "nothing less than the very future of our democracy is at stake."

"We must act or risk losing what so many Americans have fought for and have died for for nearly 250 years: The right to vote, the right to self-governance," Peters said. "The right of the American people to choose and fire public officials is our nation's fundamental freedom."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairs a Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee hearing at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.

Peters and other senators debated the legislation for hours ahead of avote late Wednesday to try to end a Republican filibuster of the measure. Democrats didn't have the 60 votes to do so, and the move failed 49-51.

"We know there are people willing to use violence to stop accurate legal certifications of our national presidential election and how do we know this? Because we were here a year ago on Jan. 6," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said on the floor.

"We also know there's a coordinated Republican effort across the country to limit the freedom to vote and make it easier to intimidate and remove election officials who won't do their bidding. And how do I know this? Because it's happening in Michigan as I speak."

GOP Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, blasted the Democrats for dragging the Senate through a "divisive and ugly partisan debate" knowing it would fail in the end. 

"I see an attempt by Democratic leadership to fan the flames of distrust," Portman said. "I see an attempt to further divide an already splintered country — both by exaggerated arguments being made to advance controversial legislation opposed by every single Republican regarding the tough issue of voting."

While Democrats have attacked Republicans for claiming the 2020 election was "rigged," Portman said Democratic leaders and President Joe Biden are now "perpetrating their own election narrative that does not fit the facts," pushing both sides deeper into their corners and leading Democrats to think elections are illegitimate. 

After the vote to end debate failed Wednesday, Senate Democrats moved to change the filibuster to pass the voting rights legislation with a simple majority instead of the 60-vote threshold. 

Both Michigan senators, Peters and Stabenow, supported the rule change, but it required 50 votes — which Democrats didn't have amid resistance from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The vote was 48-52.

GOP senators warned their Democratic colleagues about going for the "nuclear" option and eliminating the legislative filibuster just for one bill, saying it's a slippery slope that could dismantle entirely a rule meant to encourage working across the aisle.

"Five years from now, somebody's going to say, 'We did it five years ago for voting rights. Why can't we do it for the farm bill?'" Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters on Capitol Hill. 

"What I hear from Iowans ... (is) 'How come you guys can't get along?' This is going to destroy the only political institution we got in America that forces bipartisanship." 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said that "radicals on the other side, in order to get their own way, are prepared to break the United States Senate."

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, said this debate over voting rights is the first time many of her constituents have heard of the filibuster in the Senate, which she opposes.

"I have heard many say, 'I was fighting for this in my 20s, and now I'm in my 60s and 70s, having to push back against those that want to make it difficult for us to have access to vote,'" Tlaib said. 

"There is this myth that somehow the filibuster is critical and important. No. It has been used over and over again as a way to obstruct issues that are important — ending racial discrimination, anti-lynching, civil rights and now voting."

The legislation debated Wednesday includes the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The Lewis measure, named for the late Georgia congressman, would restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires states with a history of voter discrimination get clearance ahead of time from the federal government before changing voting laws. 

The Freedom To Vote Act aims to create national standards for ballot access, including expanding early and mail-in voting, ensuring same-day voter registration and that drop boxes are accessible to all voters.

It would also make Election Day a national holiday, set up automatic voter registration programs and make states ensure that lines on Election Day take no longer than 30 minutes for voters to get through.

Biden and others said it's urgent to enact the measures as state lawmakers seek to make changes that Democrats say would make it harder for people to vote and disproportionately target voters of color.

Even after Wednesday's effort that failed, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said Democrats will continue to put pressure on their colleagues to "do what's right." 

"This is too important for us to give up," said Lawrence, who is the only Black lawmaker in Michigan's delegation. 

"There were marches on Martin Luther King's birthday. It is galvanizing the people to tell these legislators who — I don't know if they're blind or stupid or just mean, but they will not move forward beyond their partisan issue to vote for what's right."

GOP lawmakers in Michigan and other swing states have been pushing election reforms after former President Donald Donald Trump's defeat in 2020. Trump continues to make unproven claims that widespread fraud led to his loss.

Portman argued that most of the laws passed already in 19 states largely make "modest" changes in election law administration, such as requiring voter ID and other signature requirements, or returning state practices to the "status quo" in place before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Michigan, Republicans are gathering signatures for ballot measures like the Secure MI Vote initiative that would bar election officials from sending out absentee ballots to voters who didn’t request them and mandate photo ID to cast ballots in person.

If the ballot initiative gets enough valid signatures, legislators in Lansing could approve the measure — instead of going to the electorate for a vote — and it could become law and not be blocked by a gubernatorial veto.

Republicans said their efforts in state capitals such as Lansing in pressing reforms  are common-sense measures needed to ensure election integrity. 

GOP U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain of Bruce Township said Wednesday she has signed the Secure MI Vote petition.

McClain noted that she had to show both her vaccination card and an ID to buy a pizza Tuesday night in Washington, where public businesses must require proof of vaccination for patrons to enter.

"If it makes sense to do that to buy a pizza — to buy pizza! — why is that bigotry and racism and voter suppression if I'm requiring ID to vote?" McClain said. "There’s gross exaggeration here, and they’re putting a spin on it. ... Stop the spin."