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Democracy under siege: Michigan’s manifestations of suppression

By Aaron Kearney, Government Affairs Intern

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The Michigan General Assembly has circulated the news extensively the past few weeks as numerous acts of questionable lawmaking have harassed the foundational standards on which the state was formed. Two weeks ago Democratic State Representative, Lisa Brown, was expelled from speaking on the house floor after using the word “vagina” while debating abortion. That same day, a more disturbing, less publicized commotion gripped the Lansing Capitol.

Michigan has been the most recent state to pass voter ID laws, yet it has been the first to do it in direct violation of its own constitution. On June 12th, when the Michigan House was set to vote on SB 0754 (the Voter ID law), the official roll call listed 66 representatives with “yea” votes and 43 with “nay” votes for the bill. Although the bill passed, it did not have the necessary two-thirds vote to go into immediate effect. Without the 73 votes needed for the bill to go into immediate effect, its progress would slow exponentially, keeping it well out of Governor Rick Snyder’s reach through the November elections and therefore not hindering this year’s voters. Democrats in the State House, as a ploy to delay the implementation of immediate effect, can ask for a roll call count on the spot for the speaker to prove that the sufficient “yea” votes are in place. Under the state constitution, the necessary amount of requests for an on-the-spot count is 22.

As Michigan House Majority Leader Jim Stamas moved to put the bill into immediate effect, a dramatic scene ensued as a group of democratic lawmakers rushed the podium in request of a roll call vote count to prove the sufficient votes were present. Ignoring the irate group of democrats bombarding his platform, Speaker Stamas gaveled the law into immediate effect. Somehow, in a matter of seconds, Stamas counted that he had 73 representatives in favor of the bill and simultaneously counted that 22 Democrats did not oppose it. Those 22 representatives have since published their opposition to the bill’s passing, which further shows the speaker’s illegal implementation of immediate effect. This seems to be a running theme in the Michigan legislature where earlier this year it was reported that over 96% of the laws past since republicans took control of the entire Assembly in 2011 have manipulated the immediate effect clause.

The bill’s passing has many implications, including stricter registration laws that require picture ID’s at different stages of the voting process. Most puzzling about the law is that it places large restrictions on third party voter registration groups, making them have to register with the state, as well as partake in a mandatory class on voter registration. The law also increases legal penalties against third party groups if even a small error occurs in the process. What these laws are clearly doing is making the voting process harder and ultimately hindering voter turnout.

Proponents of the bill claim that these steps are essential in order to weed out voter fraud. Voter fraud in Michigan, however, is practically non-existent—with over a million votes cast in the 2010 midterm elections, there were only four cases of voter fraud. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University (NYU) Law School, voter fraud in Michigan amounted to 0.0027% of its overall votes in 2005. Statistics like these show that the bill will solve an invisible problem, all the while, eating up essential public funding that could be dragging the state out of its $1.5 billion debt. This effort further intentionally discourages certain, mostly liberal, voting demographics from taking to the polls.

Suppressing the democratic process in Michigan has become a theme under Governor Rick Snyder, who assumed office at the beginning of 2011. In March of Snyder’s inauguration year Snyder passed one of the biggest suppressions of the democratic processes in recent state legislature history with HB 4214 (also known as Public Act 4), the infamous Emergency Manager Bill.

In light of the recent economic implosion throughout Michigan’s metro areas, this bill was proposed as an ambiguously authoritarian solution to insistent financial problems. In its most basic sense, the legislation claims that Gov. Snyder—acting independently—can appoint an official of his choice as an “emergency manager” to take over, in full, a municipal government. The law gives these managers “broad powers in receivership to rectify the financial emergency.” An emergency manager can fire a mayor, scratch entire municipality fiscal plans, scrap union bargaining agreements, and even eliminate town hall meetings. A manager’s previous qualifications need not surpass “a minimum of [five] years experience and demonstrable expertise in business.” Coincidentally, “demonstrable expertise” are determined solely by Gov. Snyder.

Despite the alarming rate of accountability holes in this bill, and its grossly overwhelming violation of democratic standards, it was unrelentingly slipped into law, little to the knowledge of many Michiganders like those now residing in Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac, and the Detroit suburb of Ecorse. The most extreme implementation of the bill has been seen in Benton Harbor, a troubled industrial town in east-central Michigan that was one of the first municipalities to be thrown into Snyder’s dictatorial delusion. Joe Harris, Benton Harbor’s emergency manager, put forth a public order in April 2011 that exemplifies his unchecked authority based on powers extended to him by Public Act 4: “[without] Approval by the emergency manager, no board, commission or authority shall take any action for or on behalf of the city whatsoever.” In plain English, he voided the votes of Benton Harbor’s citizens, and seized the right to govern from officials who were legally elected into given city offices. Harris essentially led a legal, peaceful, coup usurping Benton Harbor’s democracy.

Though many residents in the cities oppose their lack of democratic check on emergency managers, it cannot be denied that they have seen success in their overall missions. For example, Harris claims to be very near balancing Benton Harbor’s budget in only two years. What he had to do in order to reach this goal, however, is appalling. An extreme instance of his autocracy was his failed attempt to sell all the community owned radio station on Ebay earlier this year. Silenced residents and ousted public officials affected by this apprehensible act of “representation” have recently gained ground in fighting to salvage their rights. Advocacy groups were recently able place the repeal of Public Act 4 on the November ballot, but opposition groups have since filed arguments with the Michigan Supreme Court claiming that the petitions for the repeal did not meet type-size standards and therefore were not completely readable.

As Americans count the martyrs of the Arab Spring from their living room TV sets, they must understand that as democracy is being triumphantly won overseas, it is being systematically shattered at home. In a time when conservatives nationwide label universal health care and raising taxes on the wealthy as “socialist” techniques, they have lost sight of the proceedings in Michigan where democracy is truly under siege. It is the right of the people in this country to have a say in their government; their voices should never be suppressed and what their voices say should never be muted. The recent laws to restrict the voter process and to dissolve elected government in Michigan are clear assaults on the democratic foundation of this country. They must come to an end.

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