Every week seems to produce a new bitter harvest of terrible voter suppression laws and gerrymanders, almost all of them the work of a Republican Party bent on installing minority rule in dozens of states across the country. It’s a dismal situation, but not an entirely bleak one, thanks to activists and lawmakers in a handful of states, including Michigan, where voters this fall will have a chance to enshrine broad voting rights into the state constitution.
The push in Michigan is being spearheaded by Promote the Vote, a coalition of nonprofits that works to harness the power of grassroots activism and the enduring appeal of both representative government and convenience to buck the troubling trend of democratic decline.
In January, Promote the Vote introduced a new amendment to the state constitution that would protect many of the rights and processes that are under direct attack by conspiracy-pushing Republicans elsewhere. The organization is now in the process of collecting signatures to get the amendment on the ballot in November after spending all of last year observing the proliferation of right-wing conspiracy theories and speaking with local voters.
There’s no shortage of right-wing operatives pushing those false narratives in Michigan, and they just so happen to right now be working to rig elections through a strange shortcut in the state’s laws.
I reported on Republican operatives’ scheme to use that end-around to install a series of voter suppression measures back in November. Their goal is to trick people into signing a petition to qualify a ballot initiative that would severely stiffen voter ID laws and make it impossible for municipalities to receive grant money or help to run elections, which is so often used to pay for ballot postage, training for volunteers, food and water for election workers, and other crucial tasks.
In Michigan, the legislature has the option of simply adopting the proposed law before it even gets in front voters. Laws passed through this process can be passed with a simple majority and are immune to vetoes, allowing for a very small minority of people to run roughshod over democratic norms.
Promote the Vote, however, is campaigning to win a constitutional amendment, which would override any of those voter suppression provisions the GOP might sign into law. And according to organizational leaders, voter access is still cherished by the vast majority of people in Michigan.
“With The Big Lie and attacks on the system, you could have worried or wondered whether or not the voters in Michigan would think we need to make our system less accessible,” notes Sharon Dolente, the senior adviser at Promote the Vote. “But that is not what we found. Voters still absolutely expect that the system will be accessible, while they expect it will be secure as well.”
Promote the Vote’s amendment is a checklist of pro-democracy measures proven to expand access to the ballot box. It includes:
Nine days of early voting
Paid postage for ballot envelopes, access to ballot tracking, and state funding for drop boxes
Permanent absentee voting list, so voters don’t have to reapply for a ballot every election
Freezing the state’s limited voter ID requirements from being made more arduous
Banning political parties from involvement with election “audits”
Protects election certification processes, taking the state legislature out of the equation and ensuring that county canvassers approve vote count results
Allowing military voters more time to return their ballots
If the amendment is approved, it would give Michigan one of the most open, free, and fair elections systems in the country, a prospect that would have been almost unfathomable just a few years ago.
As recently as 2018, the state was controlled by a Republican trifecta thanks in part to egregiously gerrymandered legislative maps. The national Democratic wave that fall flipped the Michigan governor’s mansion and every other statewide office, but was hardly needed to pass a slate of progressive ballot measures. A plethora of pro-democracy policies, such as automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and an independent redistricting commission, were approved with 67% of the vote.
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The new redistricting commission just completed its first set of maps, which represent a vast improvement over the preceding gerrymanders but, as Dolente acknowledges, don’t meet every criterion laid out by the 2018 amendment. The Congressional map has seven districts where a majority voted for Joe Biden and six that supported Trump in 2020, and unlike the maps drawn in many other states, a fair number of the districts are likely to be battlegrounds.
The state legislative maps offer Republicans a small but not insurmountable advantage, though 2022 is unlikely to be the year they lose control of the statehouse.
Several civil rights organizations, including some partners of Promote the Vote, filed suit over the maps’ potential dilution of Black voting power.
“I think that the process of the independent citizens redistricting commission is light years improvement over maps being drawn behind closed doors,” Dolente says, “but I think there are legitimate arguments that there's still some additional improvement needed in the maps that they drew.”
The state Supreme Court dismissed lawsuits over the maps earlier this month, likely cementing the districts in place for the decade. Still, the maps represent the end of GOP gerrymandering, which should also ultimately lead to the elimination of that quirk in Michigan law that allows the party in control of the legislature to sign ballot initiatives directly into law.
Again, Promote the Vote amendment would override anything installed by the legislature, and while it wasn’t written with that directly in mind, it makes it that much more crucial that it gets pushed over the finish line.
“I'm very confident — the amount of energy and intensity and interest is really high,” Delonte says. “I think voters in Michigan want to move the state forward and they want to stop looking backward to an election that's been over for more than a year.”
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P.S. This is adapted from a news piece written by a paid contributor to my newsletter called Progressives Everywhere. The newsletter focuses in depth on progressive politics and policy, including lots of coverage of state governments you won’t get elsewhere, and holds bad Republicans accountable.
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