Detroit organizers call GOP legislation a ‘desperate’ attempt to limit voting

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Senate Republicans are looking to tighten voting laws after Michigan voters expanded access to voting in 2018 by allowing same-day registration and no-reason absentee voting. (BridgeDetroit photo by Ralph Jones)

Michigan Senate Republicans introduced a package of 39 bills last week that may create new restrictions for voters. Republicans call it election integrity; organizers call it undemocratic. 

Senate Bills 273 through 311 propose strict guidelines around absentee voting, the voter registration process, voter identification, and how ballots are collected and counted, among other stipulations. The bill package has been widely criticized as it comes just three years after Michigan voters expanded voting access by supporting no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration. Though access to the polls has been a longstanding issue across the country, some Detroit organizers say the proposed package is “unnecessary” in its push for partisan politics and has the potential to minimize the role of local organizing.

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Democrats have called the package a Republican tactic to decrease voter participation after cities like Detroit and Atlanta, with predominantly Black and Brown populations, helped seal a win for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the November 2020 presidential election.

“This is the response to the incredible work and amazing victory of organizers of multiracial, working-class people across the state who won, and voted in record numbers, in an election that was safe and secure and free and fair in 2020,” said Art Reyes, founder and executive director of We The People, a grassroots organization that brings people together to learn about and address local and regional policy issues. 


Reyes called the package “concerning” due to the sheer number of bills included. He said the proposed bills are a “desperate grasp at holding on to power for a smaller and smaller privileged group of people.”

Detroit elections under scrutiny

Detroit was heavily scrutinized during the 2020 presidential primary election due to unclear voter tallies and unpredictable precinct operations. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson stepped in after nearly half of the city’s precincts were deemed ineligible for a recount. Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey discussed the complexity of managing the city’s election during the coronavirus pandemic and hired elections expert Daniel Baxter as a consultant to help with logistics. 

Detroit is the largest city in the state, with more than 503 precincts. The clerk opened 23 satellite voting offices and 39 ballot drop boxes to encourage participation. Massive outreach went out to hire Detroiters to staff polling locations, and the clerk’s office sent an unprecedented number of absentee ballots. 

Yet questions of how Detroit managed its election continued. Reyes recalled the mob of Trump supporters that stormed the city’s ballot counting center at TCF Center in an attempt to intimidate poll workers and stop the vote count in Detroit last fall. Detroit’s voter participation rates in 2020 were almost as high as 2008, when President Barack Obama was on the ballot. When Joe Biden was announced president-elect, Republicans filed a series of frivolous lawsuits with unsubstantiated claims of election fraud while attacking Detroit’s election process. To Reyes, the proposed package is just another partisan political game.

“Let’s be clear, the intent of all of this is to silence Black and Brown voters,” Reyes said.

The participation of organizers and nonpartisan groups who help mobilize voters, encourage participation and watchdog democratic processes could be limited. (BridgeDetroit photo by Ralph Jones)

What Georgia and Michigan have in common: organizers

Grassroots outreach and education produced a high voter turnout rate in Democratic strongholds. Organizers say it is the reason Democrats control the presidency and both chambers of Congress. Hundreds of thousands of calls and texts were sent to Detroit voters to gain community trust and get out the vote. Stacy Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Democratic state representative in Georgia is one of the country’s best-known organizers. Abrams has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for over a decade of organizing and voter access work. Her strategy is widely believed to have helped turn Georgia into a blue state. Abrams lost Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race to Repbulican Brian Kemp, who is now being criticized for signing a restrictive voting bill with similarities to Michigan’s proposed elections package. A Georgia representative that protested Kemp signing the bill was arrested earlier this week

Both states, each whose largest city is predominantly Black, relied on local organizing to ensure underrepresented communities participated in the 2020 general election. This included phone banking, requests for donations, community events, and ongoing outreach to inform residents how to register to vote and general explanations of the issues.

“Yeah, we’re highly engaged, but we want to make sure that the elected officials and the folks running for office are talking about the things that we care about,” said Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, a grassroots organization that helps working-class Black and Brown people mobilize around policy issues. According to Snyder, their role is to listen to voters’ concerns and equip them with tools to take action.

Republicans accused of pushing ‘bad policy’

Like Reyes, Snyder called the proposed bills a response to the November election and a “power play to limit the voices of Black voters.” Snyder said elected officials who would push such a package — after voters had already supported an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to prevent legislative gerrymandering, a complete count for the decennial census, and increased access to voting — are creating “bad policy,” undoing the work of many local organizations that keep strive to keep voters educated and engaged.

Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, said the package was introduced for “wholly partisan reasons” and has the potential to allow the spread of misinformation.

“It’s not below them to pass legislation that voters in the state overwhelmingly don’t support,” Wang said at a press conference last week. Voters Not Politicians is a nonpartisan advocacy organization that was created through Michigan’s redistricting ballot initiative in 2017. The organization has helped mobilize Detroit voters to participate in democratic processes like applying for the commission.

Snyder said the Senate package creates “unnecessary hurdles” for irregular voters, residents in transition and the everyday person who may not keep up with politics daily.  

“It’s dangerous for folks who don’t vote consistently,” he said. “There are people who voted in 2020 who didn’t vote in 2016 and who don’t vote in every election because they don’t support the candidates.”

That’s where organizations like Detroit Action step in. But under the proposed package, nonpartisan groups have fewer opportunities to participate in the elections process.

Republicans want nonpartisan groups ‘out’ of elections

Sharon Dolente from the American Civil Liberties Union said the package would prevent nonpartisan groups from participating in the count process as nonpartisan challengers.

“Eliminating anybody outside of the two-party system is counterproductive,” Dolente said.

Currently, partisan and nonpartisan poll challengers like the NAACP can observe the vote count process. When the mob stormed TCF Center, many wanted entry as challengers. Dolente and Snyder, both Detroit residents, were challengers at the TCF Center during the election count process. Dolente said even though some “bad actors” may exist within the process, Michigan’s history of allowing elections to be observed by the public to challenge inappropriate procedures is important for voter engagement and ensures a fair process.

According to Dolente, nonpartisan organizations deserve a seat at the table because they not only serve the unique needs of the communities, but their staff and volunteers tend to represent and live in those neighborhoods, too. By “stripping away” nonpartisan access, Dolente says the Legislature could upend a vital level of engagement. Some nonpartisan organizations have come to be the protectors and defenders of the community. 

Detroit Action is a grassroots organization that holds both a 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 tax status. Donations made under the 501(c)4 status are not tax deductible and allow Detroit Action to participate in political lobbying and campaign activities.

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