The 39 bills Republicans introduced to curtail voting rights in Michigan was aimed at Wayne County, says Sen. Erika Geiss, but it would hurt rural Michigan too.
TAYLOR, Mich.—As Michigan Republicans fight for 39 bills that would radically limit voter’s access to the polls, state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) is standing up for the people in her district, and their right to vote in 2022 by standing against the avalanche of voter suppression.
“The provisions [Republicans] put in the bill will disproportionately affect brown and Black communities, as well as rural communities,” she told The ‘Gander. “So it actually ends up harming some of their own folks in their districts.”
This includes districts like her hometown of Taylor. The city has a strong Southern, rural culture despite being part of downriver Metro Detroit. Local tradition argues that the popular image of “Taylortucky” comes from northern migrations to Michigan from southern states, and in particular Kentucky. That gives the area a unique flavor in southeast Michigan, and a rare blend of residents impacted by targeted voter disenfranchisement.
Rural at heart, but part of Wayne County, Taylor faces a double-whammy: Being close enough to Detroit to be part of targeted efforts to disenfranchise Detroit voters which—Geiss sees as the purpose of the 39 bills—and being far enough from hustle and bustle to be hit by the side effects of the voter suppression package on rural communities, Taylor’s voters face the potential new hurdles like few other places in Michigan.
In rural areas, the expansion of voting rights in recent years has made it easier to vote by easing restrictions on when and where a ballot can be filled out. This also benefited disabled, elderly, poor, or Black voters who might have issues getting time off or traveling to a polling place. Republicans are trying to reverse some of those gains for Michigan voters. And that blend of voices being suppressed is well-reflected in Geiss’ district.
Geiss calls the Republican-sponsored package a “resurrection of Jim Crow–styled bills and policies” because they would make it harder for Michiganders to vote. “It also makes it more difficult for election officials—the clerks, Secretary of State—to do their jobs in terms of processing and handling the ballots,” Geiss told The ‘Gander.
One bill (SB 286) would lock down ballot dropboxes a full 27 hours before polls close. Another (SB 292) would make it so only political parties, not nonpartisan watchdog groups, could act as election challengers eliminating any nonpolitical oversight. A third (SB 310) would ban the Secretary of State from mailing absentee ballot applications or posting them online.
There are 36 other proposed changes to Michigan election law. This tells Geiss the voice of the people isn’t the priority of Michigan Republicans.
“I think that Republicans, especially in Michigan, are more interested in clinging on to the power they have utilized over the past decade,” she said. “They had eight years of having both chambers as well as the executive branch, and they became accustomed to being able to just railroad whatever policies through.”
And these particular policies, she says, were truly born Nov. 4, 2020.
Republicans’ 2020 Loss Turned into 2021’s Laws
In the hours that followed polls closing, things rapidly went off the rails at the TCF Center, a ballot counting location in Detroit. By the following afternoon, election workers were besieged by political actors demanding that the counting of votes be stopped in a desperate attempt to halt the legal votes of Detroiters and prevent Joe Biden from winning Michigan’s electoral votes.
When the harrowing experience was complete and the count at TCF finished, the fight to dismiss the votes of Detroiters continued. The Wayne County Board of Canvassers attempted to toss Detroit’s votes for being “out of balance,” which usually results from clerical errors arising from situations like someone requesting an absentee ballot but not casting it, or a person making a mistake on a ballot and needing it reissued.
The largest case of an unbalanced district was in Livonia, where the numbers were offset by 27. But the board was willing to certify Livonia’s results. Just not Detroit’s. And Detroit was one of many predominantly Black cities nationwide to see this kind of aggressive effort to invalidate votes.
That, Geiss says, is the road that led Michigan to these 39 bills.
“It’s a direct response to particularly Wayne County,” she said.
‘A Resurrection of Jim Crow’
That’s because things like paying postage for absentee votes, making absentee voting and early voting more accessible, and allowing ballot dropboxes to speed up what can often be a journey to a polling place make a large difference in underserved parts of Michigan. Obtaining photo ID is also a barrier that, because of systemic racism, disproportionately affects Black Americans. Despite this, the Republican legislation would lean heavily on limiting ease of access to absentee voting and implementing ID laws.
And the proposed voter ID laws are highly misleading. Someone without a photo ID could still cast a ballot on Election Day, but unless they showed ID in the following days, their vote wouldn’t be counted. They could reasonably think they voted, and not have their voice heard.
This is also a major course-change from the expanded voting rights that Michiganders passed at the ballot box in 2018 that led to smash successes in the 2020 election.
“People exercised that expanded set of voting rights,” Geiss said. “Which is what we want. We want people to be more engaged, to be participating in their democracy.”
But the attempt of Michigan republicans to reverse course on voting rights doesn’t end at Michigan’s borders, Geiss explained.
She mentioned that even before these 39 bills were introduced in March, Republicans in Lansing drafted a resolution calling on Congress and President Joe Biden to oppose a bill called the For the People Act, that largely models itself on those reforms Michigan passed in 2018. No Republican in Michigan’s Congressional delegation voted for the For the People Act.
That act, and by extension the rights Michiganders enjoy that Republicans seek to curtail, are about giving voters voice, Geiss said.
“It’s really about making sure that everyone who is eligible to vote and who wants to vote has expanded rights to do so,” she said. “We are a representative democracy, and when you have more people participating in that, then you end up with legislative spaces whether it’s on the federal level or our state level that better reflect our communities.”