Whitmer signs new laws to safeguard elections—and make it easier to vote

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs election reforms into law on Nov. 30. (Courtesy/Gov. Gretchen Whitmer)

By Kyle Kaminski

December 1, 2023

Several new state laws signed this week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are designed to simplify the voting process and ensure poll workers are protected on Election Day.

MICHIGAN—State legislation signed into law on Thursday is set to boost voter registration opportunities,mprove efficiencies on Election Day, protect poll workers, and ensure that all Michiganders have equal access to the ballot box ahead of the next general election in 2024.

In a statement, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the newly signed laws will work to ensure that every vote in Michigan can be cast and counted, “no matter who you are or where you live.”

“Voting is the first fundamental right, and we must work together to ensure everyone can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist also said in a statement. “These bills will build on that work and empower more Michiganders to participate in our democracy.”

Most of the laws will take effect in February—including allowing 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote before they can legally vote. The laws will also automatically register eligible residents to vote when released from prison, making Michigan the first state in the US to pass such a law.

The package of laws also includes reforms that aim to curb the deceptive use of artificial intelligence, manipulated media, and so-called “deepfakes” in political advertisements—namely by requiring clear labels on ads that are created using some type of artificial intelligence.

Additionally, the legislation signed into law this week will criminalize acts of intimidation against poll workers and election officials. Those who are convicted under the new state laws could face a misdemeanor that would eventually escalate to a felony on their third violation.

“Michiganders spoke clearly last year when they overwhelmingly passed Proposal 2, and now we are building on that effort,” Whitmer said in a statement. “By banning deepfakes and AI in campaign advertisements, criminalizing violence towards election workers, and allowing souls to get to the polls, we are making our sure every Michigander’s vote is cast and counted.”

Expanding Voting Access

House Bill 4569—sponsored by state Rep. Betsy Coffia—allows Michiganders to pre-register to vote at age 16, so that the Secretary of State’s office can process their voter registration early and remove barriers, making it easier for them to vote once they turn 18.

At least 16 other states (and the District of Columbia) have similar pre-registration procedures. Supporters hope the new legislation will increase youth voter turnout and alleviate wait times due to last-minute voter registration—particularly on college campuses, like the University of Michigan.

“Allowing young people to pre-register to vote—particularly while they’re learning about civics and the democratic process in school—will undoubtedly increase participation,” Coffia said.

House Bills 498386 will expand Michigan’s automatic voter registration process beginning in 2025, requiring the state to automatically register people who are eligible to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or ID card, as well as provide instructions on how to decline that registration.

Additionally, the new laws require the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to collect voter eligibility details from Medicaid applicants, as well as require the state Department of Corrections to ensure eligible inmates are registered to vote when released from prison.

Senate Bill 594—sponsored by state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield)—will also allow Michiganders to register to vote using the last four digits of their social security number, which is already commonly used as a secure method of identity verification by the state government.

“The entire bill package marks a crucial step forward in eliminating roadblocks that hamstring the fundamental right of Americans to register to vote and take part in our democratic republic, state Rep. Phil Skaggs (D-Grand Rapids) said in a statement after the bills were signed. “These bills exemplify a commitment to both accessibility and choice in our democratic process.”

Protecting the Process

House Bill 4129—sponsored by state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt)—provides another layer of personal security for election officials and poll workers by creating new criminal charges for those who intimidate them or try to prevent them from performing their duties on Election Day.

“Elections can’t take place without the poll workers who do this often thankless temporary work out of a sense of civic duty,” Hope said. “With these bills signed into law, the people who make sure our elections run smoothly will be able to carry out their duties without fear of intimidation.”

Senate Bill 505—sponsored by state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia)—specifies that individuals convicted under those criminal charges could face up to five years in prison on their third conviction.

Surveys show that about 20% of election workers know someone who left their election job for safety reasons and 73% of local election officials said harassment has increased since 2020. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said the new laws are a “great step into the 2024 election cycle where we will be prepared for all the bullies who are going to show up on our doorstep.”

“We’re here today to protect the people who protect democracy,” Benson said this week.

House Bills 51414145 requires political advertisements generated with the use of artificial intelligence to include a clear statement that the ad was generated using artificial intelligence, as well as create criminal penalties for those who fail to adhere to the new advertising laws.

Deepfakes are fake media that misrepresent someone as doing or saying something they didn’t. They’re created using generative artificial intelligence, which can create convincing images, videos, and audio clips in seconds. There are increasing concerns that generative AI will be used ahead of an election to mislead voters, impersonate candidates, and undermine democracy.

Together, the laws make it a crime for a person to knowingly distribute “materially deceptive media” within 90 days of an election if the intent of the material is to deceive voters and “harm the reputation or electoral prospects” of a political candidate. The 90-day misdemeanor charge could also escalate to a five-year felony charge for those convicted more than once in five years.

“As artificial intelligence becomes more intertwined with political advertising, it’s crucial that we safeguard the truth in our elections,” state Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing) said in a statement. “In an era where trust in our democratic institutions is paramount, these measures champion honesty and transparency.”

The legislation signed into law this week also builds on several other reforms passed this year following the passage of Proposal 2 last November, which locked certain voting rights into the state constitution—all of which centered on reducing barriers between voters and their ability to cast a ballot.

In July, Michigan lawmakers implemented changes approved by voters last November that will require at least nine days of early in-person voting beginning next year. Earlier this month, Whitmer also signed legislation to no longer make it a misdemeanor for individuals to pay for rides to polling locations through apps such as Uber and Lyft. State law had previously stated that “a person shall not hire a motor vehicle” to take them to vote unless they could not walk.

READ MORE: Michigan voting rights advocates decry ruling on Voting Rights Act

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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