Susan J. Demas: The Michigan Legislature’s War on Voting Continues

  Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Fourteen years ago, I was a new mom. My life consisted of doing round-the-clock feedings and trying to catch a few minutes of sleep in between. Walking to the grocery store two blocks away seemed like an exotic adventure, especially as the fall weather had taken a quick icy turn.

So when a canvasser showed up at my door that October and asked me if I’d like an absentee ballot, I had to restrain myself from hugging her. The idea that I wouldn’t have to frantically search for clothes without spit-up, bundle up a colicky infant and then stand in line for an hour to vote sounded like heaven at that moment.

That was possible because I lived in Iowa, which still has no-reason absentee voting, like 27 other states. There was also zero controversy about the policy. Maybe that’s because Iowa still has a large rural population and trekking down to your polling place can sure take awhile when you own a small family farm in the country. Why wouldn’t you want to vote absentee?

There’s no logical reason why we couldn’t do this in Michigan. Lines in big cities like Detroit and Flint are notoriously long. But you can only vote absentee for select reasons –– if you’re over 60, out of town on Election Day, etc.

No-reason absentee voting is something that bipartisan good government types have supported over the years, like the League of Women Voters. Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson also champions the change, as did her two GOP predecessors, Terri Lynn Land and Candice Miller.

But savvy politicos scoff at the idea because it’s widely assumed that it would help Democrats. That’s why the Republican-controlled Legislature last December dumped the latest iteration, which was tie-barred to legislation dumping straight-party voting.

As we all know, the straight-ticket voting ban became law and was quickly challenged in court. Republicans lost their bid to enact the law for this election –– and boy, are they thrilled that they did.

The presidential election was determined by roughly 10,000 votes. In an election that close, anything could make a difference, so it stands to reason that Donald Trump benefitted from straight-party voting. Just take a look at how Republicans performed up and down the ballot in northern Michigan and Macomb County –– where deeply flawed Republicans won state House races and even unknown candidates were swept into local office.

So Republicans could definitely benefit from no-reason absentee voting. The surge of rural voters who carried Trump to victory would undoubtedly appreciate it.

That’s the thing about playing partisan inside baseball. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Not everything goes according to plan.

That’s a clear case for just going with the best policy. And making it easier for people to vote is just good policy.

But right now in Michigan, the only bills the Legislature is taking up would make voting harder. The new strict voter ID bills, which Republicans introduced after the Nov. 8 election, are part of a new national push to clamp down on voting rights. There’s also a $10 million appropriation tucked in there, which means voters can’t seek a referendum to overturn the law.

We’re told this legislation is necessary to prevent voter fraud. But I’m not aware of one case of voter fraud in Michigan this election. Indeed, the Washington Post has only found four cases in the entire country. And 135 million ballots were cast.

Now perhaps you’ve heard the president-elect claim, without evidence, that millions voted illegally. But here’s the fascinating twist. In their filing to stop the recount in Michigan, Trump’s lawyers argue –– wait for it — that “all available evidence suggests the 2016 general election was not tainted by fraud or mistake.”

So these voter restriction bills are the classic case of a solution in search of a problem. But we can expect they’ll become law, because Republicans hold big majorities in both legislative houses and Gov. Rick Snyder has proved eager to sign just about anything they slide across his desk.

Meanwhile, there are real problems with voting in Michigan that the Legislature could tackle. In addition to absurdly long lines, we know that 87 optical scan machines broke in Detroit on Election Day. The $10 million blithely crammed into the voter suppression bills could buy a lot of much-needed updated voting equipment.

But we’d only do that if the Legislature was truly dedicated to protecting voting rights in Michigan — and not just wringing out any partisan advantage out of the system.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.