By Jonathan Oosting (The Detroit News)
Lansing — A coalition attempting to expand and enshrine voting rights in the Michigan Constitution submitted more than 430,000 signatures to the state Monday for a potential ballot proposal.
The “Promote the Vote” initiative would allow no-reason absentee voting by mail, guarantee continued straight-party voting and let residents register to vote up to and on Election Day.
The proposed constitutional amendment is backed the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the League of Women Voters of Michigan, the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and the Michigan League for Public Policy.
The groups tend to align with Democrats, but organizers argue the proposal could be popular with voters of all political stripes frustrated by current absentee rules or polling place lines.
“Democracy is most effective when the most possible people participate,” said Kary Moss, outgoing executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Voting should be easier. It should be accessible. And it should be something that everybody can do.”
Petitions filed Monday — the deadline for citizen-initiated proposals to amend the state constitution — will be reviewed by the Bureau of Elections. The process could take about 60 days and inform any Board of State Canvassers vote on whether to put the measure on the November ballot, said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams.
The potential proposal would give Michigan voters a chance to decide the fate of two voting options the state’s Republican-led Legislature has resisted or rejected in recent years.
Legislators voted to ban straight-ticket voting in late 2015, arguing voters should select individual candidates on each ballot rather than simply voting for a political party's nominees. But straight-ticket voting continued in 2016 amid an ongoing legal battle over the state law, which remains in court.
GOP legislators have not finalized bills to expand absentee voting despite support from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. Snyder praised and signed the straight-ticket ban in 2015 but urged the Legislature to allow more absentee voting to alleviate long lines at the ballot box.
Michigan currently allows absentee by-mail voting for seniors over the age of 60 and younger voters who provide a valid excuse, such as a disability or plans to be out of town on Election Day. Voters would not need an excuse under the potential ballot proposal.
The initiative would let residents register to vote by mail or in person up to 15 days before an election, up from 30 days under current law. Voters could also register in-person with proof of residency through Election Day.
Johnson, finishing out her last term as Michigan's top elections official, does not take positions on ballot proposals but opposes same-day registration “because it doesn’t give local clerks enough time to verify the completeness of a registration application,” Woodhams said.
Michigan is already a leader at registering people to vote at Secretary of State offices, Woodhams said, noting a record 7.5 million residents were registered for the 2016 presidential election.
The Promote the Vote proposal would also amend the constitution to guarantee military members get a ballot at least 45 days before an election and require post-election audits, which are currently required under state laws.
The campaign, which used a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, appears to be well-funded. Organizers raised more than $1.2 million through April 20. Most of the direct funding came from the national ACLU, which kicked in more than $1 million as of the last required disclosure report.
The initiative has not yet faced any organized opposition, but supporters expect push back if the proposal makes the ballot.
“This is not a Democratic issue. It is not a Republican issue. It is not an independent issue," said the Rev. Wendell Anthony of the Detroit NAACP. “Voting is an American issue.”
Michigan's November ballot could be crowded with multiple ballot proposals, several of which may be opposed by Republican officials and aligned groups.
A marijuana legalization measure has already qualified and will likely earn the Proposal 1 distinction. Petitions for an independent redistricting commission have been certified but the Michigan Supreme Court is reviewing a challenge to the initiative.
Groups seeking to raise the minimum wage and require employers to provide paid sick time have submitted petition signatures that remain under review by the Bureau of Elections.