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March 2021

Michigan voters will have to pay close attention this year and next to make sure that the Republican controlled state House and Senate do not adopt state laws that erode some of the gains made with the nearly 67 percent approval in November 2018 of a change to the state Constitution (Proposal 3) to expand voting access in the state.

As a CliffsNotes take – Proposal 3, among other things, provided no-reason absentee ballots; mandated audit of voting results; provided for same-day voter registration; and restored straight-ticket voting that GOP lawmakers had banned after 127 years of existence.

The threat over improved ballot access for voters is already shaping up to be a major issue in the post-November 2020 atmosphere tainted with disproven claims of major fraud in the most recent election, fueled by right-wing theologians in the Republican Party who still march to the drum beat of an ex-president.

Some observers say that Michigan, along with other states where the legislature is controlled by Republicans, will attempt to roll back some access to voting by mail ballots, eliminate the use of drop boxes and create other barriers to voting under the guise of the disproven claims of voter fraud in the last election. Oh, you thought issue would simply fade with the transition to a new administration? Then just consider, for a moment, that Marian Sheridan of West Bloomfield, who was in recent weeks reelected by delegates at the GOP party virtual convention to the position of vice chairwoman, has already issued a public call for party members to send her photos of fraudulent addresses and voting documents from Wayne County from the November election so she can continue the charade.

Michigan will be following what appears to be a national battle plan in states where the legislature is dominated by Republicans. The generally revered Brennan Center for Justice reported in early February that 165 bills to restrict voting access are now pending in 33 states, such as seeking to impose stricter voter ID requirements; limiting mail-in voting access; slashing voter registration options; and providing for a more aggressive approach to purging lists of eligible voters.

While no-reason absentee ballots are now enthroned in Michigan's Constitution, some states are proposing elimination of permanent absentee voter lists or reducing the amount of time a voter could stay on such a list without having to reapply. Others are proposing laws that would prevent sending an application for an absentee ballot without a request from the voter or requiring applications either be notarized or signed by two witnesses, or requiring a photo of a voter's state ID to be included with an absentee ballot when sent to a local clerk.

There are some changes to Michigan voting law being proposed that are worth pursuing, including a four-bill package in Lansing shifting the state's primary election from August to June. The concept appears to have bi-partisan support and the approval of Michigan Secretary of State (SOS) Jocelyn Benson.

The state's May election, which has its detractors because it is often used for tax issues and has a lower voter turnout, would be eliminated. Backers of the change say it would save money and provide more time for municipal clerks to recoup before they have to enter the November election period. Further, the added time between a primary and general election would allow more time for recounts and audits. The presidential primary vote would still remain a March affair.

Former SOS and now Senator Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), who heads the Senate Elections Committee, has said her senate panel would hold hearings but she would not guarantee a vote.

Two bills in the package, introduced by GOP lawmakers and backed by Benson, would target voters who have not cast a ballot since 2000 and those with an unconfirmed birth date.

The Republicans are portraying that cleaning up the rolls would help prevent the possibility of fraud. Benson, prior to the November 2020 election, pushed to take the same action but there was insufficient time prior to the election to accomplish what the bills provided, following a 2019 Michigan Auditor General's report suggesting the voter file be cleaned up. Benson estimates that there could be at least 175,00 voters in the file who have moved, some out of state, in addition to many others.

Under the two bills, the SOS office would have to mail postcards to people on the Qualified Voter File who have not voted since 2000 or do not have a birthdate on file with the state. Seldom do voters notify a local clerk when they move from a community or that someone has died.

Those who do not return the card or do not vote within four years of receiving the card would be removed from the voter rolls, so it is not like the files would necessarily get cleaned up before the next major election.

Benson has her own agenda, so expect other bills coming from her office.

Her possible goals include mandating that applications for absentee ballots be sent to all registered voters for all federal election cycles, like she did for the 2020 elections; giving local clerks an added two weeks ahead of election day to process (but not count) absentee ballots; making Election Day a state holiday; requiring election printed matter be available in multiple languages in communities where a large portion of the population are not English-speaking residents; banning deceptive practices that deter or mislead voters, like the robo calls to Detroit voters in 2020 that told people the wrong date to vote; and allowing ballots that arrive after election day to be counted.

Trust that some of what SOS Benson is proposing will draw opposition. Likewise, we can expect some bills from Republicans that will make voting more difficult, especially in Democrat-leaning minority population districts. No, the voter suppression efforts will not be as bold as decades ago in Southern states where Black voters had to correctly guess the number of jelly beans in a jar before they could cast a ballot – the Michigan GOP has demonstrated more refined, subtle legislative efforts in recent decades.

So we will have to count on Governor Grethen Whitmer to veto such attempts. But citizens will also have to weigh in at some point to pressure lawmakers who try to make voting more difficult in coming elections.

David Hohendorf



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