Michigan GOP Election Officials Are Attempting to Subvert Democracy in Plain Sight

In Michigan, conservatives are aiming to use technicalities to block popular referenda to protect reproductive freedom and make voting easier. Their efforts are part of a long and increasingly brazen right-wing campaign to restrict democracy.

Republican efforts to block voter referenda in Michigan are yet more evidence of the GOP’s increasing willingness to do away with democratic norms when it fits its agenda. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

Since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, at least 600,000 and possibly as many as 750,000 people in Michigan signed a petition to put a referendum on the state ballot that would ensure the right to abortion and other reproductive health measures. In a separate initiative, organizers also collected over half a million signatures for a referendum to establish early voting and other reforms to make it easier to vote.

Last week, Republican election officials blocked both proposals from going on the ballot. The state’s supreme court, with a Democratic majority, will likely overturn the decision this week. But even though Republicans are unlikely to succeed in these two cases, their efforts are yet more evidence of the party’s increasing willingness to do away with democratic norms when it fits its agenda.

In both cases, legal objections rest on weak foundations. The two Republicans on Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers agreed with conservative activists who objected to the spacing of the text in the “Reproductive Freedom for All” ballot initiative. They also agreed with objections to the early voting referendum on the grounds it did not sufficiently describe the parts of the state constitution it would amend. The language of both referenda was previously approved by state election officials, and no one claims that either proposal failed to gather the number of valid petition signatures required to appear on the ballot.

In an effort to avoid the appearance of partisanship in election decisions, the Board of State Canvassers, which has the final say on what appears on the ballot, is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. Based on the idea of “mutual policing,” the board was designed to run by consensus or at least to prevent overt favoritism by either party.

But since Donald Trump’s loss in 2020, Republicans have become increasingly aggressive in trying to turn ostensibly neutral, bureaucratic election rules and procedures into one more way to seize an advantage. Taken in tandem, the Right’s efforts to prevent a democratic decision about women’s bodily autonomy and to prevent easier voting are particularly galling.

Recall the core of the conservative argument in the Supreme Court decision that overturned the federal right to abortion: “Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.” In other words, conservatives argued that courts had undemocratically created rights that were properly the domain of democratic decision-making.

Setting aside for today the question of whether individual rights should be subject to majority rule in the first place, Michigan Reproductive Freedom for All organizers did exactly what conservatives on the Supreme Court said they should: take the decision about the right to reproductive health to the people. Michigan conservatives’ response was to try to deny the people of the state the right to make that decision — on the flimsiest of pretexts. On top of that, with their objections to expanding absentee and early voting, they want to make it more difficult than necessary for people to vote at all.

These objections are probably going nowhere, and both referenda have a very strong chance of passing in November. But the weakness of the objections reveals the conservatives’ instrumental attitude toward democracy; they are happy to affirm it (rhetorically, at least) when it suits them and will use whatever methods they can to restrict it when it doesn’t — even when their attempts are a longshot.

The Board of State Canvassers decision is part of a broader, more disturbing trend with the potential for much more serious consequences. Earlier this year, Michigan Republicans nominated Kristina Karamo to run for secretary of state, Michigan’s top election administrator. An unhinged election denier who was among the pro-Trump mob that gathered to intimidate Detroit election workers in 2020, Karamo has called public schools “government indoctrination camps” and likened abortion to “child sacrifice,” deeming it a “satanic practice.” Karamo also allegedly threatened and attempted violence against her family. It is hard to imagine fair elections in Michigan with Karamo running the show.

And it’s not just Michigan. Across the country, from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to Arizona, Republicans are running for and often winning state and local offices on a platform of little more, in substance, than baseless accusations that Democrats and some Republicans who ran the 2020 elections committed massive fraud. At the same time, federal courts and state governments dominated by Republicans have accelerated their long-running efforts to make sure voters can’t do anything as silly as reject their agendas or check their power. They’ve long held democracy in contempt, but that doesn’t mean things can’t get worse.