As political threats intensify, Michigan Dems look to ban guns at polling places

New legislation would also expand voting access

By: - March 17, 2022 4:15 am

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As experts warn of increased political violence in the coming elections and GOP lawmakers push voting restrictions, Michigan House Democrats on Wednesday announced a package of nine bills aimed at keeping guns away from polling places and expanding ballot access.

“Before and during the Civil Rights movement, guns were used to harass and intimidate Black people who were simply trying to exercise their rights,” said state Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit), sponsor of a bill that would prohibit the possession of a firearm in a polling place and within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling place on Election Day. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing that again today with extremists who believe only certain people should vote. This is not the America that folks fought and died for 60 years ago. We cannot allow a few bad actors to spoil our elections with threats of violence.”

Young, Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) and Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) gathered on the steps of the Michigan Capitol in downtown Lansing to announce the bills, which are expected to be formally introduced on Thursday. 

The bills would: 

  • Allow for nine days of in-person early voting. 
  • Create a process for clerks to notify voters if their signature doesn’t match the one on an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot return envelope.
  • Allow voters to request email or text updates to track their absentee ballot.
  • Codify the ability to request an absentee ballot on the Secretary of State’s website.
  • Require the state to reimburse municipalities for the costs of legislative special elections.
  • Prohibit petition signature gatherers from making intentional misstatements to convince a voter to sign a petition.

The legislation — which comes after House Democrats in November introduced another voting rights package that has received no backing from Republicans nor legislative hearings — will likely face resistance from GOP lawmakers, who have pushed to restrict access to voting in Michigan. 

Last week, House Republicans approved a number of proposals aimed at restricting ballot access — including requiring physical signatures on absentee ballot applications, barring clerks from sending absentee ballot applications to voters unless they’re specifically requested, and banning private funding to help run elections. Republicans previously pushed similar bills this past fall, which were vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

At Wednesday’s press conference, Koleszar said these efforts “are meant to gum up the workings of our elections” and would “disenfranchise older and disabled voters.”

“I fear what is truly driving the so-called ‘reforms’ is suppressing turnout and creating barriers between Michiganders and their fundamental constitutional freedom to vote,” Koleszar said of Republican efforts to restrict voting access.

Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) speaks at a March 16, 2022 press conference at the Michigan Capitol. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Following the governor’s vetoes, GOP legislators have also turned to a petition drive, Secure MI Vote, in a bid to circumvent Whitmer and restrict voting access. Among other voting restrictions, the Republican-backed initiative would limit clerks from utilizing nonprofit properties, such as churches and other places of worship, that were previously donated as polling spaces unless clerks paid for them. Places of worship accounted for 20% of Michigan polling sites in the 2020 election.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) did not return a request for comment on the newly announced bills, and a spokesman for House Republicans did not comment and said he would ask if a GOP lawmaker could respond. No one did.

Pohutsky, who is sponsoring the bill that would allow for nine days of in-person early voting, said her legislation would help to ease wait times around voting.

“With each passing election, we see images of Michiganders waiting in line for hours simply to exercise their right to vote,” Pohutsky said. “In the year 2022, this is inexcusable, but it can be prevented with common sense legislation. My bill in this package would allow early in-person voting starting the second Sunday before Election Day.”

“As legislators, we should be doing everything in our power to eliminate barriers to the ballot box and ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot and make their voice heard,” Pohutsky continued. “Long lines on Election Day disproportionately impact people who already face barriers to voting: working people, people of color, the disabled, and our senior citizens. Rather than passing legislation to make these obstacles even more insurmountable, we need to be working to empower our constituents to exercise their right to vote.”

If Pohutsky’s bill passed, Michigan would join 19 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing early in-person voting.

Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit) speaks at a March 16, 2022 press conference at the Michigan Capitol. | Courtesy photo

Young’s bill barring guns from polling places comes after Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in 2020 attempted to stop people from openly carrying firearms on Election Day. A Michigan judge struck down Benson’s order in October 2020. 

“There’s a big difference in branches of government,” Young said. “[Benson] tried to do it, but we’re the legislature and so what’s what we do: we propose legislation. So we took [Benson’s] suggestion and now we’ve made it into a bill that we hope will get the light of day and hopefully end up in front of us on the House floor.”

Young’s legislation comes at a time when political violence is on the rise, and experts have warned that threatening rhetoric supported by Republican candidates could escalate to violence. Additionally, 40% of Republicans, 41% of independents, and 23% of Democrats have told pollsters violence against the government can be justified.

“Let’s be clear: this is not about our constitutional right to own guns,” Young said. “But it is about the right of every Michigander to have a peace of mind and to feel safe when going and exercising their right to vote. We already have laws in place that limit where people are allowed to carry firearms — places like churches and daycare facilities and sports arenas — so there’s nothing crazy or malicious about this legislation.”

Young went on to further emphasize the point that this bill would in no way ban people from owning guns. 

“Nobody’s telling you you can’t have your gun,” Young said. “… I’d just like to say if you know you’re going to vote, and you own a gun and regularly carry a gun, then just make the conscious decision to leave that at home, perhaps for the 15 minutes that it’s going to take to cast your ballot.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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