Bieber: Lawmakers should make voting easier, not harder

Ron Bieber

The 2016 election may seem like a long way off, but Republicans in Lansing are already making it harder to vote, so they can tip the scales in their favor next November.

Just last week, the Legislature rammed through a bill that will get rid of Michigan’s century-old straight-party voting system. This partisan power grab was universally opposed by county and local clerks, many of whom testified in committee that the bill will lead to longer lines, and more confusion for voters on Election Day.

Michigan already has one of the longest ballots in the country. Getting rid of straight-party voting will mean fewer people will cast votes in important down-ballot races for the Legislature, county, and local elections — especially in larger precincts in Michigan’s urban communities, which already experience long lines on Election Day.

But making it harder for certain people to vote is exactly what some legislators had in mind all along.

The sponsor of the bill to get rid of straight-party voting, state Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, was recently caught on tape during an education committee hearing saying “We can’t make an African-American white. It is what it is. So we can’t fix that.”

Following the ensuing public uproar over his appalling remarks, Knollenberg desperately tried to backpedal, claiming it was simply “a clunky choice of words.” However, Knollenberg’s bigoted comments on education offered a rare glimpse at the ideology behind his bill to get rid of straight-party voting.

It is clear to me that Knollenberg’s bill is really about making it harder for people of color to make their voices heard at the ballot box on Election Day, and that’s just shameful. This is America — where all people are supposed to be treated equally under the law.

When it comes to our elections though, Lansing Republicans seem to think some voices should be louder than others.

Last week the Legislature passed another bill that will codify the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling into state law. This bill will open the floodgates to even more dark money spending in Michigan’s elections by out-of-state special interests, and billionaires like Dick DeVos and the Koch brothers.

Of all the challenges facing our great state, the last thing we need is more money in politics. Michigan already ranks dead last in the country — 50 out of 50 — in a report on ethics and transparency.

This new law would make it even easier for the wealthy and well-connected to buy political influence with Lansing politicians, at the expense of everyday working people who can’t afford to write big campaign checks and hire expensive lobbyists.

Gov. Rick Snyder can do the right thing by vetoing these anti-democratic bills.

Lawmakers should instead focus on making it easier for people to vote, by passing laws that allow no-reason absentee voting, early voting, and same-day registration. And they should pass new legislation that shines a bright light on campaign contributions and state government contracts so taxpayers know who is trying to influence state policy makers, and what they expect in return.

Our American democracy should work for “We the People,” not just the wealthy. If Lansing Republicans keep creating new obstacles to voting, then Michigan’s working people need to send them a message next November.

Ron Bieber is Michigan AFL-CIO president.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.