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Republicans increasingly look to ballot initiatives as way to enact voting measures

Voting rights advocates say they fear the efforts in three states will prove successful and spread to others where such initiatives are legally possible.
Image: Early voting begins in Michigan
A woman casts her ballots for the upcoming presidential elections as early voting begins in Ann Arbor, Mich., on September 24, 2020.Emily Elconin / Reuters file

Republicans seeking to change state voting laws in the face of opposition from Democratic governors or unwilling legislatures are zeroing in on another path — enacting fresh restrictions via ballot initiatives.

In Michigan and Pennsylvania, key battlegrounds that President Joe Biden flipped back blue in 2020, as well as in Massachusetts, Republicans are at the beginning stages of a lengthy process to put proposed limits directly to the voters.

Voting rights advocates who connect the moves to the proliferation of restrictive voting laws advanced in states where the GOP enjoys total control say they fear those efforts will prove successful and spread to other states where such initiatives are legally possible.

"It certainly seems that these tactics by politicians in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are part of a larger national strategy to limit the freedom to vote," Joanna Lydgate, CEO of the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan voting rights group, told NBC News. "This is about making it harder for Americans to vote."

In Michigan — where Republicans control the Legislature but not the governor’s mansion — the state GOP chair and the Republican leader of the Michigan Senate have both indicated a ballot initiative is their ultimate path forward on voting restrictions in order to avoid Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's veto.

While Michigan Republicans have publicly been tossing around the idea since March, their counterparts in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have only more recently followed suit.

In Massachusetts — a state with a GOP governor but where Democrats control the Legislature — state Republican leaders have announced a push to get a voter ID initiative added to the 2022 general election ballot, with local media reporting that the state party has already begun raising money and enlisting volunteers for a signature drive.

Pennsylvania Republicans seized on the idea of an amendment to the state Constitution — put before voters — after Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, rejected a package of voting restrictions sent to his desk by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Republicans in these states considering ballot initiatives have different paths to success. In Michigan, the state Constitution 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 signatures.

Before an initiative reaches the ballot, the state Legislature can pass the proposed law with a simple majority vote in each chamber, and such a measure cannot be vetoed. This process is rarely used, but earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed one such initiative that was mounted amid the pandemic by conservatives who opposed the governor’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

In Massachusetts, backers of the initiative must submit their proposed ballot question to the state attorney general's office by early next month. Should it meet the state's constitutional requirements, backers will then need to collect more than 80,000 signatures by mid-November.

If enough signatures are collected, the proposal will go to the Legislature in January. Then, if lawmakers opt against passing it before early May, petitioners must collect another 13,000-plus signatures and complete a series of other filings with state and local officials before it can be placed on the general election ballot.

In Pennsylvania, where lawmakers are seeking to enact a voter ID provision via amending the state Constitution, such language will need to be approved in identical form by the Legislature in two consecutive sessions before making it on the ballot. The earliest this could happen is the 2023 primary election. Like their Michigan counterparts, Pennsylvania Republicans found success in circumventing the Democratic governor via the initiative process earlier this year when voters approved two GOP-sponsored amendments that led to the end of Wolf's pandemic emergency orders.

Election challengers demand to enter to observe the absentee ballots counting but were dined entry in Detroit on November 4, 2020.Salwan Georges / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

In recent years, Democrats and progressive activists have used ballot initiatives and citizen petitions to secure key victories related to expanding ballot access and redistricting, as well as advancing other progressive priorities.

At the same time, Republicans have worked to limit the power of ballot measures in 31 states, introducing more than 125 bills in 2021 alone. Meanwhile, the average cost per-signature was $8.09 in 2020, according to Ballotpedia data. That's 24 percent higher than the average in 2018 ($6.52) and almost double the average between 2010 and 2018 ($4.70).

"We are committed to making sure it is easier to vote, harder to cheat, and reassure all voters that their vote is protected," Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser previously told NBC News in a statement, noting the state party wouldn’t foot the bill for the petition drive itself. "We plan to support initiative efforts if Gov. Whitmer chooses to put partisanship ahead of the overwhelming support for voter ID."

Democrats argue what Republicans now seek is a perversion of the initiative system.

Voters Not Politicians, a Michigan group that gathered signatures and campaigned for the independent redistricting commission ballot question in 2018, is planning to oppose any effort to enact voting restrictions through ballot initiative.

"We’re prepared for the petitions to drop at any time," the group’s executive director, Nancy Wang, said. "We’re going to be out in these same communities where they’re seeking signers and we’re going to be tabling at festivals and farmers markets to provide information on what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to short-circuit the governor and the voters."

She said advocates will consider a rival initiative, even as it remains unclear what restrictions Michigan Republicans would seek to get on the ballot.

State Republicans have unveiled dozens of bills aimed at tightening up election rules this year, including legislation that would add an identification requirement to mail-in ballot applications and require election workers to verify voters’ signatures at the polls before counting their ballots. Those bills have largely stalled.

One reason Republicans in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts may have focused their initiatives solely on voter ID laws, rather than including other election changes, is because public polling has shown those requirements have broad backing by members of both parties. A recent Monmouth University poll found that 80 percent of Americans back requiring voters to show photo ID in order to vote. (The same poll found similar levels of support for expanding early in-person voting.)

"The struggle with ballot initiatives are always getting the actual initiative on the ballot to start with," said Garrett Bess, vice president of Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group. "But if the question [of voter ID] is put to the voters, then I think it's an almost certainty to pass."

Still, the effort marks a new chapter in the broader national Republican effort to advance new limits on elections following former President Donald Trump's campaign of lies about last fall's vote. A number of leading backers of the ballot initiatives have boosted Trump's false claims of fraud.

Voter fraud in U.S. elections is exceedingly rare. Although there is no evidence of widespread malfeasance in last fall's election, more than a dozen states have so far enacted changes this year.

Though voting rights advocates and Democrats have long argued that voter ID isn’t necessary to prevent fraud and can serve to keep some eligible voters away from the polls, multiple leading Democrats have recently expressed openness to voter ID provisions, including Wolf, in Pennsylvania. The voter ID proposal being advanced via referendum is tougher than the one included in the broader package of election bills Wolf vetoed, though he indicated a willingness to consider some stricter provisions — much to the surprise of state GOP leaders.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states already ask voters to provide some form of ID, with most of them allowing voters without ID to cast ballots if they sign a form under oath.

Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of Spread the Vote, a nonpartisan organization that works to help eligible voters obtain government ID where it’s required to cast a ballot, said the shifting conversation around voter ID has her fearing such ballot initiatives will pass. Even so, she said, more than 20 million eligible voters lack ID.

"So we've seen these things pass because there aren't loud enough voices," she said. "And the party that should be sort of spreading these facts aren't telling people the truth."

Republicans for Voting Rights Director Amanda Carpenter, a former senior staffer to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose organization is against the broader GOP wave of election restrictions, said the ballot initiatives "don't have to be successful to work."

"Because it keeps the narrative alive that something went wrong with the 2020 election and action needs to be taken," she said.

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's Democratic secretary of state, said Republicans are "taking a by-any-means-necessary approach to restricting access to our democracy," adding any such proposal runs counter to the initiative voters in her state passed in 2018 and to the spirit of the referendum process.

"You know, the bottom line is, we've also got to be prepared," she said. "And by we, I mean, those of us on the side of simply just ensuring democracy is accessible for all. It should not be a partisan issue."