Ahead of State of the State speech, voting rights advocates urge additional action

A voting precinct at Lansing City Hall | Susan J. Demas

By Kyle Davidson, Michigan Advance

While 2023 saw the passage of several pro-voter policies in Michigan, members of Common Cause are calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to prioritize voting and election safeguards in her State of the State address on Wednesday.

Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization focused on creating an open and accountable government, has released a list of next steps it says would help make Michigan’s elections “safe, secure and equal for all voters.”

These suggestions include closing loopholes that remain in Michigan’s campaign finance disclosure process; increasing campaign finance disclosure and transparency; adopting the national popular vote for presidential elections; passing the Michigan Voting Rights Act to protect the state from attacks on the federal Voting Rights Act; and to rescind a 2014 resolution calling for an Article V convention, which the organization argues is a threat to the nation’s current Constitution. 

According to the organization’s website, if two-thirds of state legislatures call for a constitutional convention, they may add amendments to the Constitution once they are ratified by three-fourths of the states. The Constitution does not provide any guidelines or rules on how this convention would work, and in the more than 230 years since the document was signed, an Article V convention has never been called.

“Our elections should be safe, secure, and free for all voters, regardless of political party. While 2023 was a step in that direction, there is much more work to be done,” Quentin Turner, Common Cause Michigan executive director, said in a statement. “We encourage our elected leaders to continue this work to return power back to Michiganders, and we would like to see Governor Whitmer and the legislature lead on these continued reforms this legislative session.”

The Institute for Responsive Government also issued a report evaluating election policy progress which praised Michigan for a “significant number of positive changes” to state election law. In the report, Michigan was one of only three states to receive an A+ grade.

Minnesota and New Mexico —two other states in the institute’s “middle tier” of state with a mix of pro and anti-vote policies — were also graded an A+.

North Carolina, which was also considered a middle-tier state, received an F, after successfully passing policies that limit voter access and shift power over election boards from the governor to the state’s Legislature.

South Dakota, which was listed in the report’s bottom tier due to a number of existing anti-voter policies, also received an F for banning ballot drop boxes and instituting a 30-day residency requirement before individuals can register to vote in the state. 

While discussing Michigan, the report cited policies aimed at implementing Proposal 2, which voters approved in the 2022 election, alongside other policies including allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote when they turn 18, repealing a law that prohibits hiring transportation to travel to a polling place and ensuring automatic voter registration for incarcerated individuals when they are released

(See the full report here: IRG_StateReportCards-2024_P5)

“Lawmakers and advocates in Michigan this year set the standard for what it truly means to commit to and enact pro-voter measures that make participating in our democracy more accessible, more equitable, and more secure for all,” Sam Oliker-Friedland, executive director of the Institute for Responsive Government, said in a statement. “These policies will not only immediately benefit Michiganders; they also serve as a roadmap for lawmakers in other states who are eager to advance measures that make our government and our elections more transparent and responsive.”

While the voting reforms in the state have drawn support from voting rights groups nationwide, efforts to improve financial disclosure for candidates and state officeholders were less well received. 

In December, Whitmer signed a package of bills implementing the financial disclosure components of Proposal 1, which was also approved during the 2022 election. 

The bills received both praise and criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, with critics arguing the bills do not go far enough, and contain loopholes including the lack of financial disclosure requirements for spouses.

“We’re pleased to see Governor Whitmer sign this long overdue ethics reform into law — but ultimately, the law falls short of voters’ expectations. Despite overwhelming, bipartisan support for greater transparency from our elected officials, lawmakers weakened the law to shield themselves from public scrutiny,” Turner said in another statement released in December. 

“The people of Michigan asked for full transparency, and this legislation does not go far enough. There are still too many loopholes in the disclosure process. We deserve to know about the financial incentives of our elected officials and how that might influence the people’s business,” Turner said.