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Republicans in Michigan oppose voting rights bills

(Kyle Davidson/Michigan Advance photo) State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township, questions stakeholders at a meeting of the Michigan Senate Elections and Ethics Committee.

Earlier this month, members of the Michigan Senate Elections and Ethics Committee voted to advance a package of bills intended to bolster the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, addressing concerns of vote dilution, language access, protection for voters with disabilities and protections against voter intimidation, coercion or deception.

While Democrats have celebrated forward movement on the package, the bills have not received a warm reception among Republicans, with lawmakers in the House and Senate criticizing the policies alongside other bills that would change the requirements to request a vote recount, and voting rights laws approved by voters in 2022.

After several weeks of lengthy testimony on the package, which is made up of Senate Bills 401-404, members of the committee voted 5-2 to send the bills to the Senate floor for a vote. Sens. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, and Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township — the committee’s two Republican members — voted against advancing the bills.

This comes after Michigan voters have enshrined voting rights in the state constitution via two ballot measures in 2018 and 2022, which include nine days of early voting, no-reason absentee voting, same-day voter registration and more. Republicans have also been critical of those changes and proposed a suite of voter restrictions last term that were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Throughout the course of testimony, McBroom was trepidatious about the policies, arguing some provisions would increase burdens placed on election clerks and open them up to potential legal threats.

“This so-called ‘State Voting Rights Act’ legislation purports to protect voting rights, but our right to vote is already well protected by the Michigan Constitution. Passing more laws is redundant and just creates confusion,” McBroom said in a statement. “What these completely unnecessary bills would actually do is create new headaches for local clerks by substantially increasing reporting requirements and their overall elections-related workload while costing taxpayers millions of dollars.”

While bills received strong support from various voting rights groups and civil rights organizations, the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks and local government organizations also expressed concerns that the bills would create additional burdens on clerks, create additional burdens on clerks, as well as financial and legal concerns for local governments facing voting rights complaints if the Michigan Voting Rights Act were to become law.

In recent years, Michigan clerks have had to adapt to a number of changes to election law and the state constitution, and have adapted well to those changes, Scott Smith, attorney for the city of Wyoming said in his testimony before the committee.

As political and media personalities continue to spread false narratives questioning the integrity of the election process, clerks have faced open hostility from voters and challengers and have faced burdensome Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and demands for information questioning their integrity, Smith said.

“There are increasing difficulties in recruiting and retaining election workers. Every time we add complexity or new downsides to what is a fairly voluntary position with a local government, we make it harder to recruit folks,” Smith said. “When we have more proposed changes, such as in these bills, and these bills contain possible monetary penalties that the clerks have to face, they’re concerned.”

Under Senate Bill 401, local governments would be prohibited from implementing any law, practice, policy or method of election that would lead to a disparity between a protected class of voters and other voters, or that would impair the ability of voters to participate in the electoral process. It defines what these violations would look like and permits individuals to take legal action to ensure their rights are protected.

Mike Batterbee, legislative associate for the Michigan Township Association testified in opposition to Senate Bill 401, arguing that it seems to place blame for voting rights violations on clerks. It also creates concerns of nuisance complaints which would require local governments to hire an attorney to address them, whether the complaints proceed to court or not.

However, Lata Nott, senior legal counsel on voting rights for the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, argued this policy would empower voters after the key provision of the federal voting rights act had been stripped away through various court decisions.

It would also encourage voters and local governments to work together to remedy potential violations before resorting to legal action.

“Voters alleging racial discrimination must send their local government a notice letter with a detailed description of potential violations. After that there’s a safe harbor, they can’t file a lawsuit for at least 60 days — more time than that if the government starts implementing a solution — but during that time, both parties have the opportunity to collaborate in good faith to find a solution to the alleged problem,” Nott said.

“SB 401 recognizes that many local governments are good faith actors that would, if given the opportunity, proactively fix things that affect the voting rights of historically disenfranchised communities,” Nott said.

The Michigan Voting Rights Act also includes streamlined tests for determining whether a law or regulation denies or impairs a minority community’s access to the ballot, or whether a map or election system minimizes a minority community’s voting power, allowing state courts to avoid the lengthy legal battles seen in federal voting rights cases, Nott said.

Before advancing the bills to the Senate floor, the committee also adopted updated versions of each of the bills addressing some stakeholder concerns.

Senate Bill 401 now creates a fund in the state treasury from which the Department of State can reimburse plaintiffs and local governments for up to $50,000 in certain expenses prior to litigation, which Committee Chair Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, said would incentivize plaintiffs and localities to settle disputes before going to court, while also saving taxpayers money on potentially lengthy lawsuits.

“Too many members from marginalized communities have faced discriminatory barriers when trying to exercise their most fundamental right as American citizens — their right to vote. Our committee heard exhaustive testimony about the need to secure access to the ballot box for all qualified voters. After working intently with voting rights advocates and election administrators, I’m proud that we have now moved the Michigan Voting Rights Act to the full Senate for consideration,” Moss said in a statement.

“The MVRA underscores our commitment to safeguarding the right of each Michigan voter to feel empowered to shape our state’s future — free from discrimination and intimidation,” he said.

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit. For more, go to https://michiganadvance.com/.

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