LANSING, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 03: Voters arrive to cast their ballots in a school gymnasium on November 03, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans went to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) Voters At The Polls On Election Day 2020
LANSING, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 03: Voters arrive to cast their ballots in a school gymnasium on November 03, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans went to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

“I think that’s done intentionally knowing that groups who traditionally vote for the rights of the working class–if you do things that make it harder for them to reach the ballot, then obviously their interests are going to be less represented,” said Nava Renaud, a stay-at-home mom in Redford Township. 

Need to Know

  • Republicans are trying to overhaul state election laws exploiting a quirk in the Michigan Constitution that would allow them to jam through changes without putting it to a vote of all Michigan voters. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would also have no say in the process.
  • The effort would make it more difficult to vote by mail, vote in person, and could eliminate one in five Michigan’s polling places.
  • Critics of the GOP-backed idea argue it’s an attempt to make it harder to vote in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss—and his subsequent lies about voter fraud.

MICHIGAN—For years, Nava Renaud brought her young children with her to the polls to vote. 

The lifelong Redford Township resident has been lucky to never face long lines, but as anyone who’s been a parent knows, just the hassle of bringing an infant anywhere can be stressful.

“When you take a baby with you to vote, you obviously want to be in and out of that precinct as quick as possible,” the 34-year-old told The ‘Gander. 

During the 2020 election, however, Renaud was one of the more than 3 million Michiganders who voted by mail, thanks to the state’s new no-excuse vote-by-mail system, which was approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2018.

“It was a lot more convenient, especially with COVID protocols and everything that was going on,” Renaud said. “It was easier and safer.”

Like most Americans, Renaud, a stay-at-home mother of four, believes that voting should be accessible, convenient, and secure. While she never expected to be the type of person who follows politics, becoming a mom changed that for her. “What we do or fail to do today can impact future generations,” she said.

That’s why she and others are worried about Michigan Republicans’ latest effort to erect barriers that make it harder for the average person to vote.

Secure MI Vote—a misleading title, according to its detractors—seeks to overhaul state election laws by exploiting a quirk in the Michigan Constitution. If the petition collects at least 340,047 valid voter signatures, the proposal would go to the Republican-led legislature, where politicians could enact it into law without putting it to a vote of all Michigan voters. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer would also have no say in the process as lawmakers could use the constitutional loophole to circumvent her veto power.

If Secure MI Vote succeeds, it would:

  • require vote-by-mail voters to write their state ID number and the last four digits of their Social Security number on an application for an absentee ballot. If they fail to do so, the voter would be sent a provisional absentee ballot, but their ballot would only count if they showed up at their clerk’s office in person, with an ID, within six days after the election.
  • eliminate an affidavit option that lets in-person voters without an ID cast a ballot if they sign a statement of identity under penalty of perjury. More than 11,000 Michiganders employed this method to vote in 2020. Under the measure, voters who forget their ID would have to cast a provisional ballot and return to their local clerk’s office with a valid form of ID within six days. 
  • ban state and local election clerks from accepting private grants or in-kind contributions from outside groups to help administer elections.
  • prohibit churches and schools from donating polling places.
  • ban the Michigan Secretary of State and local election clerks from “sending or providing access to” a vote-by-mail application unless it is requested by a voter.

It’s Really Not About Securing Someone’s Vote. It’s About Controlling Who Votes’

The Secure MI Vote petition drive has been widely criticized by voting rights advocates. Sam Inglot, the deputy director of Progress Michigan, called it an effort to “force through anti-voter legislation” that puts up barriers between voters and the ballot box. 

“It takes away voting options on Election Day,” Inglot said. “It takes resources away from clerks, and it potentially shuts down polling places across Michigan.” 

Renaud believes this plan is an “insidious” attack aimed at communities of color, lower-income voters, and working-class families like hers, who are often just scraping by and don’t always have the time or ability to overcome these sorts of barriers.

“I think that’s done intentionally knowing that groups who traditionally vote for the rights of the working class—if you do things that make it harder for them to reach the ballot, then obviously their interests are going to be less represented,” she said. 

Photo of Nava Renaud
Image courtesy of Nava Renaud

Renaud has seen first hand what can happen when voices like hers aren’t heard. Prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom, she worked in Detroit’s public school system and saw just how underfunded schools were—a problem she believes is inextricably linked to whose votes and voices are prioritized.

“I think that seeing schools being understaffed, the lack of resources, the lack of upkeep … that’s one direct way that we can see how not being able to engage in the political process can directly impact a person’s life,” she said.

Thanks largely in part to declining state support for Michigan schools, education funding in Michigan declined by a whopping 30% (adjusting for inflation) between 2002 and 2015. This disinvestment in public schools came after Michigan voters gave most control over school funding to the state with Prop A in 1994. Since then, no other state has seen its education revenue decline as much as Michigan’s—a shift that happened largely under Republican governance. From 1995 to 2019, Republicans controlled the state Senate every single year, controlled the House for all but six years, and controlled the governor’s mansion for all but eight years.

“Everything from roads to child care to public education to environmental protection and stopping climate change—our ability to vote impacts these issues. That’s what we’re doing when we go to the ballot box.”

Sam Inglot, deputy director of Progress Michigan

By making it more difficult for people like Renaud to vote, Republicans would be making it more difficult for them to have a say in their communities and tackle real problems.

“Everything from roads to child care to public education to environmental protection and stopping climate change—our ability to vote impacts these issues. That’s what we’re doing when we go to the ballot box,” Inglot said. “We are voting for candidates and proposals that will have an impact on those issues that impact us every day. Attacks on our voting rights are also attacks on our ability to effect change on those issues that impact Michiganders every single day.”

Election Officials Are Opposed to Secure MI Vote

Mary Clark is Delta Township’s top election official and president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, which opposes the initiative. Clark is worried that residents who’ve voted by mail for years might overlook the new absentee voting requirements and miss the line on their application for their state ID or social security number.

“There’s a strong possibility their ballot will not be tabulated,” Clark said. “They can go through the exercise, but their ballot will not be counted under Secure MI Vote and the name is very much a misnomer. It’s really not about securing someone’s vote. It’s about controlling who votes, which is not the same thing.”

Clark is also worried about the provision that would prevent schools and churches from donating polling locations. She currently has 16 precincts, 10 of which are polling sites donated by churches. 

Backers of Secure MI Vote believe that clerk’s offices should have to pay “fair market value” to use churches and other non-government buildings as polling places. 

“What we’re trying to do is keep special interest influence out of elections to show there’s no bias in how elections are administered,” Jamie Roe, spokesperson for Secure MI Vote, told mLIVE in November.

If the petition is approved, Clark and other elections officials across the state will only be allowed to rent space to serve as voting sites and there are legal limits to what kinds of locations are allowed. That, she explained, would be “a nightmare,” as she already uses every township and county building available. 

According to a Progress Michigan report, the effort could eliminate one in five polling places across Michigan.

Trump’s Election Lies Paved the Path for Secure MI Vote

Republicans who back the petition drive claim the proposal is intended to “secure future elections” and “restore faith” in the state’s election system, but opponents argue it’s a cynical attempt to make it harder to vote in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss—and his subsequent lies about voter fraud.

“Every four years, there are two candidates on the ballot for president, at minimum,” Clark said. “Every time there’s a winner and there’s a loser, or losers. 2020 was no different. It’s just created this attack on our system because one person that didn’t want to be the loser was the loser. It’s crazy.”

Clark, who’s been an election administrator for 11 years, said she’s committed to election integrity, but noted that there are already robust safeguards in place to ensure election security and prevent voter fraud. The data backs that up.

A thorough review by the Associated Press found only 56 possible cases of fraud in Michigan, which would have had no impact on Joe Biden’s win in the state. Most of the cases involved two individuals suspected of submitting roughly 50 fraudulent requests for absentee ballots in Macomb, Wayne, and Oakland counties. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation documented only one case of voter fraud in Michigan during the 2020 election cycle. 

“Absentee voting was not an invention of the 2020 election. It has happened successfully with integrity for many, many, many years. And to use absentee voting—especially absentee voting in a pandemic—as an excuse to claim that the election was stolen because you didn’t get the candidate you supported elected is really quite ridiculous.” 

Mary Clark, Delta Township Clerk and president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks

The Republican-led Oversight Committee in the Michigan state Senate also published a report rejecting Trump’s claim that the election was fraudulent. 

“Our clear finding is that citizens should be confident the results represent the true results of the ballots cast by the people of Michigan,” wrote state Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), the committee chair. “There is no evidence presented at this time to prove either significant acts of fraud or that an organized, wide-scale effort to commit fraudulent activity was perpetrated in order to subvert the will of Michigan voters.”

And yet, Republicans—including numerous Trump-backed candidates for office in Michigan—continue to spin lies about the 2020 election and mail-in voting being rife with fraud.

The claim is an absurd one, Clark said.

“Absentee voting was not an invention of the 2020 election. It has happened successfully with integrity for many, many, many years. And to use absentee voting—especially absentee voting in a pandemic—as an excuse to claim that the election was stolen because you didn’t get the candidate you supported elected is really quite ridiculous.” 

The Anti-Democratic Plan to Change Michigan’s Voting Laws

While the content of Secure MI Vote is controversial, the path Republicans are taking to pass it into law is arguably even more polarizing.

“The fact of the matter is they have no intention of people ever voting on this petition. We know they’re trying to just pay for signatures that will then be collected and hopefully stamped by the Board of [Canvassers] and then forced through the legislature by way of a vote,” Inglot said. “This thing will never go to the ballot and the people in Michigan will never have a chance to really have their collective voices heard on it and that’s intentional.”

The Trump-backed GOP’s attempts to sow distrust in elections and exploit that lack of faith to change voting rules has left pro-democracy forces frustrated and dismayed.

“Michigan clerks are proud of the job that we do. We all sign an ethics policy. We all take an oath to protect the Constitution of Michigan and the Constitution of the United States and we take our jobs seriously,” Clark said. “It’s been hurtful and harmful to be attacked, like clerks in general have been—again, because someone didn’t want to be a loser.”

In Michigan, municipal clerks like Clark are up for election every four years and must register with a political party. Clark is a Democrat, but believes firmly in the need for two strong political parties to have a functioning democracy.

“It isn’t supposed to be one party in control of everything. The two-party system adds checks and balances,” she said. “But it requires the two party system to be adults behaving in a professional and courteous and appropriate way.”

Promote the Vote 2022: An Alternative That Secures Voting and Makes It Easy

While Secure MI Vote has taken center stage in recent months, it isn’t the only game in town.

In early February, the Promote the Vote voting rights coalition—which helped expand no-excuse mail-in voting in 2018—launched its latest initiative to amend the state constitution to guarantee certain voting rights. 

The Promote the Vote 2022 initiative would, among other things, establish:

  • nine days of in-person early voting, making voting more accessible for working people.
  • a single absentee ballot application allowing voters to register to vote-by-mail for all future elections, subject to an identity check, so voters don’t have to fill out a new application each election cycle.
  • state-funded prepaid postage for absentee ballot applications and ballots, which would remove cost as a barrier to voting.
  • absentee ballot drop boxes in every municipality, including one for every 15,000 residents.
  • step-by-step ballot tracking, so voters can see if their ballot has been accepted and fix any problems if it hasn’t been.
  • the ability for local election officials to accept funding from publicly disclosed sources.

“This is a continuation of efforts in 2018 that made our voting system more secure and accessible and so there’s a desire to keep Michigan moving forward to ensure that every voice is heard and every vote is counted,” said Sharon Dolente, senior adviser to Promote the Vote 2022.

The initiative was approved by the Board of Canvassers on Friday, and if organizers gather roughly 425,000 valid signatures required by mid-July, their plan will be placed on the November ballot. If Michigan voters approve it in November, changes established under the initiative would become law in 2023.

Should Secure MI Vote and Promote the Vote both pass, Promote the Vote would override the GOP effort, since it’s being proposed as a constitutional amendment.

Dolente said that Promote the Vote has spent a lot of time in the past year speaking with voters across the political spectrum, who ultimately want the same things: secure and accessible elections. 

“Despite what [backers] might say, the Secure MI Vote petition does nothing to make voting more accessible,” Dolente said. “I’m concerned in Michigan that individuals are spreading misinformation in an effort to depress civic participation, but I’m also hopeful that the voters of Michigan will not be dissuaded by that.”

Promote the Vote would actually do what Secure MI Vote claims to do, Dolente said: By expanding early voting, making it easier to vote by mail, and providing postage for mail-in ballots, Promote the Vote would streamline the process and make voting more accessible. It also ensures that only state and local election officials can perform audits, removing the possibility of outside interference.

The initiative would also “tighten up” some sections in the Michigan Constitution to ensure that the outcome of elections are determined only by voters—not the state legislature. Some Republicans have tried to claim that state lawmakers can overturn the will of voters should they believe election results were fraudulent. Promote the Vote would guard against this by ordering the Board of Canvassers to certify election results based on the count of votes cast and clearly establish that the Board of Canvassers is responsible for certifying election results. 

“It is not [up to] the legislature to determine the outcome of elections, but it is the voters of Michigan,” Dolente said.

“Once you let go of something like democracy, letting go of your right to vote, things can take a turn for the worse quickly.”

Nava Renaud, Redford Township resident

Clark and the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks are supportive of several of the items included in the measure, including expanded access to early voting, funding for postage, and the process for post-election audits.

So are Inglot and Progress Michigan.

“Michigan is the birthplace of unions and unions are democratic organizations,” said Inglot. “Throughout Michigan’s history, it’s within our culture. It’s within our DNA as Michiganders to want to fight to protect voting rights and [make] sure that everyone’s voice is going to be collectively heard.”

Renaud, the Redford Township mom, was less certain about the future of voting access in Michigan. “A lot of people don’t seem to take it seriously,” she said, referring to the GOP’s efforts to make it harder to vote. 

“Once you let go of something like democracy, letting go of your right to vote,” she said, “things can take a turn for the worse quickly.”