While Republican legislators in Michigan are intensifying their drive to enact the most aggressive voting curbs of the year, expecting such moves would help them in future elections, an earlier effort to preserve power has been blocked in court.
To be sure, the law struck down Monday by a federal appeals court theoretically benefits Republican and Democratic politicians equally. But the ruling could nonetheless make it tougher for the GOP's efforts to win back all three top statewide offices next year — by making it easier for minor party and independent candidates to run for those jobs.
The decision comes as Republicans in control of the Legislature have started mulling a plan for getting around Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in order to make access to the ballot box more difficult starting next year.
Cracking the major-party duopoly is a top cause of many democracy reformers, who believe rules ensuring red and blue ownership of the electoral map are a big cause for governing polarization and dysfunction.
So they were pleased with the 2-1 ruling from 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which declared unduly burdensome the special ballot access requirements for people seeking statewide office who are not from a major party.
Those rules include collecting at least 30,000 signatures, with at least 100 from half of 14 congressional districts, by early summer in an election year — many weeks, in some years, before primaries or conventions that automatically land a Republican and Democrat on the ballot in November.
Only five states have a tougher signature threshold, the court said as it backed a lower court's ruling in favor of cutting the number to 12,000.
"All told, Michigan's system works to disadvantage independent candidates alone by requiring them to seek a significant number of signatures from an electorate that is not yet politically energized and to stake out positions in a race with yet undecided contours," Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote in the majority opinion.
In dissent, Judge Richard Allen Griffin said the ballot access rules should be at the discretion of the Legislature and not open to judicial second-guessing.
In most recent elections, a handful of minor-party candidates have usually combined for about 2 percent statewide. Unless the case is successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, that roster and vote share will likely increase — with the outsiders no closer to victory, but maybe getting enough support to shape the outcome of a close Republican vs. Democratic contest.
Whitmer and two other Democrats, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, are all expecting intense challenges to their re-elections in 2022 in what remains one of the nation's major political battlegrounds. And so they are all counting on strong turnout to continue the success that President Biden had in carrying the state by 3 points last fall, reversing Donald Trump's much narrower win four years before.
A key aspect of the GOP campaign strategy in the state, and many others, is to make voting more difficult. The new chairman of the Michigan party, Ron Weiser, is now encouraging an unusual strategy for accomplishing that goal.
While legislators in Lansing write a comprehensive measure restricting access to the ballot box — knowing that Whitmer will veto it — he wants Republicans to invoke the state's system for allowing the people to essentially have the last word instead of the governor. If the party can persuade 340,000 Michiganders to sign a special petition, then the Legislature would be permitted to enact the provisions mentioned in the petition without Whitmer's say-so.
A political committee to run the signature effort, Secure MI Vote, has already been formed.
Republicans unveiled a package of 39 voting restriction bills last week, repeating the arguments made by their colleagues in Georgia, Iowa and virtually every other battleground state's capital: New curbs are needed to assure election integrity and prevent fraud, even though Trump's insistence that he was robbed of re-election by such cheating has no basis in fact.
Among other things, the Michigan proposals would curb the powers of election boards in urban counties, limit voters without photo identification to casting provisional ballots, prevent the state from proactively sending absentee ballot applications to voters, require vote-by-mail applicants to present a copy of identification, bar local governments from paying the postage on ballots returned by mail, and restrict the use of drop boxes as an alternative.