DETROIT – The claim: Michigan election bills are “designed to make it easier for people to vote”

Republicans in Michigan’s Senate recently unveiled a massive package of proposals to change election laws that they say will improve voting security and integrity, and boost voters’ confidence in the election process.

They’ve also pitched their reforms as expanding voting access.

“This package is designed to make it easier for people to vote and ensure our elections are conducted fairly and honestly,” state Sen. Michael MacDonald, R-Macomb Township, said in a statement, echoing similar claims from other Republican lawmakers.

Voting rights advocates and election officials from both parties disagree. They point to bills that would impose stricter voter ID requirements — including a new one for absentee voters, shorten the deadline for returning absentee ballots via drop boxes, prohibit clerks from paying for postage on absentee ballot return envelopes, and restrict the secretary of state’s ability to make absentee ballot applications available to voters.

Senate Republicans, for their part, cite other measures that would establish an early in-person voting day, enable some teenagers to pre-register to vote and allow some members of the military to electronically submit their ballots. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, a former secretary of state who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, have pointed to these changes in claiming the package would make it “easier to vote.”

Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, a Republican who co-chairs the Michigan Association of County Clerks’ legislative committee, said he wouldn’t characterize the package as improving voters’ experience. “I don’t think there’s any way that you can claim that taken as a whole, it would make voting easier,” he said.

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The Free Press took a look at the proposed changes and their potential impact on voters, especially absentee voters, who made up a majority in the 2020 general election. We found that on balance, the changes would make it harder — not easier — to vote.

MacDonald didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Legislative push follows surge in absentee voting

The Republican legislative push comes after a November 2020 election that saw a record 5.5 million votes cast in Michigan, including more than 3.3 million absentee ballots. More Michiganders have had access to absentee ballots since 2018, when voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to give every voter the right to vote absentee for any reason.

“Millions of Michiganders used that right last year and will certainly want and seek to use it in the future,” said Sharon Dolente, a voting-rights attorney and senior adviser for Promote the Vote MI. The GOP bills would make it harder for those voters, she said. And with the proposed voter ID requirement for in-person voting, “one could argue that it is imposing burdens on every single registered voter whether they choose to vote absentee or on Election Day.”

New ID burdens for absentee voters

Four bills propose major changes to the current process for absentee voting.

One bill would require voters to attach a paper copy of their ID to their application for an absentee ballot. That places a burden on voters by requiring them to own or have access to a copier or printer.

The bill would allow voters requesting an absentee ballot to present their ID or a copy in person to their local clerk. Under Michigan’s constitution, voters have the right to choose whether to apply for an absentee ballot in person or by mail. The ID requirement could interfere with that choice.

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“If you are requiring an individual to come in person to show their ID, you have ostensibly eliminated their opportunity to utilize the mail unless they have the financial means to have a printer, paper, ink,” Dolente said.

Voters who don’t show their ID with their ballot application would be issued a provisional ballot. Under the Senate Republican plan, they would have to verify their identity within six days of an election in order for their vote to count. That could lead to a higher rejection rate of absentee ballots.

Earlier deadline for ballots returned to drop boxes, and ban on prepaid postage

Another bill would bar voters from returning absentee ballots via a drop box after 5 p.m. the day before an election; clerks would have to lock it at that time. Under current law, voters have until 8 p.m. on Election Day, which is when polls close statewide.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat who co-chairs the legislative committee with Roebuck, said that having a separate deadline for returning absentee ballots via a drop box “is throwing up more walls between the voter and the ballot box.”

And Dolente said it could end up excluding them. “I could see voters showing up after 5 p.m. not knowing the deadline … on their way home from work with their ballots, and then potentially not ever coming back again.”

Senate Republicans also propose barring local clerks from providing prepaid postage on return envelopes for absentee ballots, and prohibiting the secretary of state from funding prepaid postage. Voters would have to add and pay for postage themselves.

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During the November 2020 election, 183 clerks across Michigan requested reimbursement to cover prepaid postage for 977,705 absentee ballot return envelopes, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Limits on secretary of state’s power to distribute ballot applications

Senate Republicans also introduced a bill that would prohibit two steps that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took in 2020 to encourage absentee voting amid the pandemic: mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, and providing an online application on the Department of State’s website.

Dolente said that the mailing of applications “made sure that everybody knew about their right” to vote absentee “and had the means to exercise that right.”

And nearly 400,000 voters in the November election submitted applications through the Department of State’s website, according to the secretary of state’s office. Without an application on that site, voters would turn to their local clerk’s website, which might not post the application, Dolente said.

Voting rights advocates also have expressed concern over a bill that would ramp up identification requirements for in-person voting. Currently, Michigan voters who don’t have an ID with them can sign an affidavit attesting to their identity and vote normally. The bill would require that these voters be issued provisional ballots instead.

Would any bills make it easier to vote?

Abby Walls, who handles communications for the Michigan Senate Republican caucus, denied that the package would limit absentee ballot access and pointed to other bills in the package to support Republicans’ claims that they would make it “easier for people to vote.”

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One bill would allow teens as young as 16 to pre-register to vote if they’ve been issued a driver’s license or state ID. The package also includes a bill that would allow active-duty service members deployed at the time of an election to cast a ballot electronically. These measures would impact a subset of the voting population.

One bill would create a single day of early in-person voting on a Saturday two weeks before Election Day. Many states offer a much longer early voting window, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Byrum said these measures don’t offset the proposals that would make voting harder for millions of voters. “Any time… a package of legislation disenfranchises one voter, that cannot be negated by decent legislation or decent portions of a bill.”

Roebuck said the onus rests on Republican lawmakers to show why changes he said would make voting harder are necessary.

“If we have a massive amount of absentee ballot fraud due to people receiving applications or due to people having their postage paid … we have to deal with that. So then prove to me where that is, because I want to see that before I can get behind legislation that would negatively impact my voters.”

Walls did not respond to a request for evidence of significant voter fraud that would explain the changes to postage and ballot application rules.

Our ruling

MacDonald claimed that Senate Republicans’ election bills are “designed to make it easier for people to vote.” While the package contains some measures that expand voting access, it includes more substantial changes that would make it harder to vote in Michigan for many people.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

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Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at chendrickson@freepress.com or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen .