In Michigan this week, activists with the Defend Black Voters coalition held a series of protest actions to call out companies in the Detroit Regional Chamber that have donated to politicians who back new voter restriction laws despite claiming to stand for democracy and voting rights.
The coalition, composed of state groups such as Michigan People’s Campaign and national organizations such as Community Change Action, brought the demonstration to Mackinac Island, where the Detroit Regional Chamber was holding its biannual public policy conference. The coalition’s first action was dropping a banner on a lighthouse that read: “Loepp, pledge to defend Black voters.” The banner named Blue Cross of Blue Shield of Michigan CEO Daniel Loepp, who last year signed a joint statement with business leaders that urged “equitable access to the ballot” but whose company has contributed to state legislators who voted last year for a package of Republican bills that would restrict election access. The activists also marched to the landmark Grand Hotel with signs like one that read “Stop Voter Suppression,” and had an airplane circling the island with a banner that listed company names alongside the message, “Stop funding attacks on Black voters.”
The Defend Black Voters coalition is calling on businesses to sign a pledge to “immediately and permanently cease funding, directly or through conduit entities, any super PAC or other political committee that works to promote the election of any Michigan state legislator who supports voter suppression bills.” Companies signing the pledge would also agree to halt political backing of the members of Congress who objected to 2020 Electoral College results, never employ elected officials who backed voter suppression measures in a senior position after they leave office, and agree to withdraw from any industry association that won’t follow suit.
Ken Whittaker, executive director of the Michigan People’s Campaign, who traveled from Detroit to the island this week, told Sludge, “All of these corporations have issued Black Lives Matter statements after the death of George Floyd, but we look at those statements as empty because they continue to fund the legislators who are pushing voter suppression.”
Whittaker said the coalition is targeting large corporate sponsors of the conference that, according to a November 2021 tally by the Defend Black Voters coalition, are the largest corporate contributors to the Republican legislators behind voter restriction bills: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Delta Dental of Michigan, General Motors, Ford, DTE Energy, and Consumers Energy.
This year’s Mackinac Policy Conference theme is “the business community’s changing civic role in polarizing times,” and that it would highlight areas where Michigan businesses can set examples, including “advancing diversity as a strength,” “utilizing civility and facts in public discourse,” and “advocating for the fundamental tenets of American democracy.”
“Corporations have to do more than issue a tired, empty statement and change their profile photo to a black square,” said Whittaker. “They have to stop paying for an attack on Black and brown voters and pledge to defend democracy for all in Michigan—that includes working families and communities of color.”
One company, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, had agreed to meet with coalition members to discuss the pledge, but it canceled before the meeting and has not attempted to reschedule, according to Whittaker.
GOP Plan to Bypass the Veto
The Michigan Republican Party’s plan to pass sweeping election changes goes back to early last year, after Joe Biden carried the state’s presidential election by just over 154,000 votes. In a speech to the North Oakland Republican Club on March 25, 2021, party chair Ron Weise said that state Republicans would launch a signature drive for a ballot initiative on election reforms.
The ballot initiative would be identical to a package of bills, introduced by Michigan Senate Republicans in March 2021, that would make voter identification rules stricter, limit absentee ballot drop boxes, and ban prepaid return postage for mail ballots, among other things. According to the nonprofit news outlet Bridge Michigan, the proposal would also prohibit unsolicited absentee ballot applications and ban outside funding of election administration like grants to hire staff.
A Republican-led Michigan Senate committee last year “found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in Michigan’s prosecution of the 2020 election,” the authors wrote, and virtually none of the over 60 pro-Trump legal challenges have succeeded in courts nationwide, according to a count by Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias cited by USA Today.
In October, Gov. Whitmer vetoed the package of bills that would restrict election access, saying, “There is no evidence that use of affidavit ballots is related to voter fraud.”
However, state law provides another avenue through which the Republicans can enact their voter suppression measures. The Michigan Constitution states that the legislature may enact laws proposed as ballot initiatives, without amendment, within 40 days of receiving a petition with a sufficient number of qualifying signatures, which is about 340,000 signatures this year.
“Legislators realize the bills were packaged into a ballot initiative with no goal of getting onto the ballot, but rather to use what’s called ‘adopt and amend’ strategy, and bypass the governor’s veto,” Defend Black Voters’ Whittaker said. “They’re using the GOP legislature as a weapon—they had no intention of collecting signatures to put the bills on the ballot.”
The Republican package, which supporters call Secure MI Vote, stands at 435,000 signatures, but its supporters announced this week that they plan to gather more signatures before filing with the Board of State Canvassers.
If the legislature takes no action, a qualifying ballot initiative would appear as a measure on the next general election ballot. Since the 2020 election, 18 states have passed laws that restrict access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.