Right-wing groups have launched an unusual political campaign in Michigan, uniting major Republican donors — including Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s former education secretary — with far-right militants in an effort to exploit the state’s petition rules and bypass the normal legislative process. If successful, this could lead to the veto-proof enactment of a series of bills that would sharply restrict voting rights, curtail the state’s public health powers and direct taxpayer money to private schools.
Notably, one of the major petition drives underway in Michigan, Secure MI Vote, effectively replicates a package of nearly 40 bills introduced in the Michigan Senate last spring to restrict voting rights, many of which were subsequently passed — and then vetoed by Whitmer.
As Salon’s Igor Derysh reported last September, Michigan Republicans proposed their Secure MI Vote petition with the secretary of state’s office before the bills were even vetoed, amounting, in Democrats’ view, to a two-track plan to force the voter restrictions through one way or another.
After Whitmer vetoed the bills, said Nancy Wang, executive director of the state voting rights advocacy group Voters Not Politicians, Republicans admitted that passing them the traditional way had never been their objective. “Very openly, when they started this legislative effort,” said Wang, “the head of the GOP said, ‘Well this isn’t our end goal. We know they’re going to be vetoed and we’re going to use that momentum to fuel this petition drive.'”
If passed, Secure MI Vote would require voter ID for both in-person voting and requesting absentee ballots, require partial Social Security numbers for voter registration, forbid county clerks from accepting funds from outside entities to help administer elections and prohibit election officials from sending mail-in ballots or applications unless they are directly requested by voters.
“There are all these different ways that they would make elections harder for people to participate in and for clerks to administer,” said Wang.
When it’s legal to lie
Amid the initial Unlock Michigan campaign in 2020, the Detroit Free Press obtained video evidence that showed a private canvassing company, under contract with the Unlock campaign, explicitly instructing petition gatherers to use misleading or illegal tactics in gathering signatures, including by lying to voters.
In January, Wang’s group, Voters Not Politicians, released a video recording of one petition-gatherer in Kalamazoo making an astonishing array of false claims in one four-minute span. The circulator, who said he’d been hired to come up from Florida and that he got paid by the signature, told voters that Unlock Michigan 2 was a measure to “stop COVID from spreading”; that Let MI Kids Learn would provide “scholarships for needy kids”; and, bizarrely, that Secure MI Vote would require two forms of ID in order to vote. Throughout the interaction, the circulator repeatedly insisted that the petition would only result in getting the issues on the ballot, and not, as is almost certainly the case, that if the petitions gather enough signatures, the Republican legislature will pass them unilaterally.
“It just goes to show that the tactics are getting more novel and more disturbing,” said Wang. “Anything goes. And it doesn’t seem to matter to people with political power how they’re staying in power, even if it’s very anti-democratic.”
“I think it just verifies what we were suspecting: that a lot of these efforts are really consolidating into one power structure, and the [Republican] establishment here in the state is perfectly comfortable with having these kinds of extremists out there, spreading their message and getting support and generating a lot of energy,” said Wang. “It’s an extreme, subversive kind of anti-democratic effort, but then it’s also blessed by the Michigan Republican party, so it’s this mix of different factions on the right working together.”
“There is an overlap of leadership between these different efforts, and now we’re seeing very clear connections between them all,” Wang continued. “Regardless of whether they started off as grassroots or with some kind of extremist energy behind them, they’ve all been endorsed, and sometimes funded outright, by establishment Republicans.”
Rep. O’Neal said that members of the Legislative Black Caucus have been organizing with labor groups, churches and the NAACP to launch local education drives about these petitions. The key, said Wang, is urging people to read the 100-word synopsis atop each petition. Unlike whatever petition circulators may tell people on the street, the written summaries must be approved by the state and so must be factual.
Wang’s group has also gone on the offensive, launching a petition drive of its own to propose a ballot initiative for a state constitutional amendment that would protect the fundamental right to vote without harassment or interference.
“Michigan is a battleground,” said Wang. “We are pulled in all these different directions, with groups that are trying to perpetuate the Big Lie and change election outcomes, and then voter-led citizens’ groups like ours that are trying to spread the word that this is happening and it poses a threat to our democracy in Michigan.”
This story was originally published by Salon. Read more here: https://www.salon.com/2022/04/06/battleground-michigan-joins-with-militant-far-right-in-campaign-against-democracy/