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Michigan ballot initiative proposes strict photo ID law

It's the latest effort by conservatives, who have sought to restrict access to the ballot box around the country.
Image: Michigan vote
Residents cast their votes, at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich., on Nov. 3, 2020.Seth Herald / AFP via Getty Images file

Conservative activists filed paperwork to put a strict photo ID requirement on the ballot in Michigan, the first step in an unusual legislative maneuver designed to enact restrictions despite opposition from the state’s Democratic governor.

A group calling itself Secure MI Vote filed paperwork with the state Bureau of Elections on Thursday, proposing a potential citizen’s initiative that would mandate strict photo ID for voting in-person and by mail, amongst other changes to the election code. Michigan already has a photo ID requirement, but voters can sign an affidavit attesting to their identify if they don’t have photo ID and vote normally.

It's the latest effort by conservatives, who have sought to restrict access to the ballot box around the country. Fueled by former President Donald Trump's stolen election lie, many states have advanced and enacted sweeping new election laws. Michigan lawmakers have sought to advance new restrictions like photo ID, too, but Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said she would veto any such legislation.

Republicans, undeterred, have suggested a little-used quirk of the state constitution, which allows citizens to put an initiative on the ballot if they gather a certain number of signatures — at least 8 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial race. This year, that would be about 340,000 voters' signatures.

But before an initiative reaches the ballot, the state Legislature can pass the proposed law with simple majority vote in each chamber, and such a measure cannot be vetoed by the governor. This process is rarely used: Just nine other initiatives have become law this way in the last 58 years, according to the state.

The chairman of the state Republican Party, Ron Weiser, first suggested Republicans would use a citizen initiative back in late March, remarks that were echoed by state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey in July. But Jamie Roe, a political strategist working with Secure MI Vote, said the organization was separate from the state's Republican Party.

He declined to elaborate on who else was involved in the group that would need to organize the collection of 340,000 signatures, though, saying only that Republican state Sen. Ruth Johnson, a former Michigan Secretary of State, and Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, are supporters of the effort.

Roe said voter ID is a popular reform and that the initiative could restore trust in the state.

“It is a broadly, broadly supported reform,” Roe told NBC News. “Maybe Nancy Pelosi and Gretchen Whitmer don’t like it, but the voters do.”

Democrats and advocates disagree, arguing that Michigan voters expanded voting access through a 2018 citizens' initiative that required the state to institute no-excuse mail voting, automatic voter registration, and other changes.

“It’s extreme, it’s outlandish, it’s anti-Democratic in the most basic way,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a group that used another citizen’s initiative to create an independent redistricting commission in 2018.

Wang said the initiative's summary — which describes the changes as "legislation to protect the right to vote and increase confidence in the conduct of elections by requiring photo identification before casting a ballot" — is misleading because Michigan voters are already asked for photo ID at the polls.

“Of course all voters would agree you should have ID, you should be an eligible voter, and that’s of course why we already have state ID laws,” she said.

But Wang argued the proposed ID requirements are so strict the would deter some voters. Her group has already distributed thousands of flyers urging people not to sign such a petition and is in the process of printing thousands more to continue that work.

Ballot initiatives are expensive endeavors: Several recent successful or pending high-profile ballot initiatives have ranged from $3 million to more than $16 million, according to campaign finance filings.

And while the state Republican Party supports the citizen initiative, but they won't be able to bankroll it, according to a recent campaign finance ruling.

A Michigan Republican strategist, Robert LaBrant, recently requested a ruling from the state Bureau of Elections on whether the state party can legally use its funds to back a ballot initiative. The Detroit Free Press reported that a preliminary ruling determined they cannot, due to campaign finance rules.

"The Michigan GOP is very interested in securing our elections and restoring faith in the process," Sarah Anderson, a spokesman for the Michigan GOP, told NBC News in an email. "We are reviewing how we can best be helpful in supporting this initiative as we fully support its intentions."

Roe said the group would fundraise for the necessary dollars to help them gather the necessary signatures.