Lansing — The leaders of many of Michigan’s largest companies are opposing more restrictive voting laws, posing a possible obstacle to the plans of the state’s Republican lawmakers.
Leaders of more than three dozen major Michigan-based companies — including the Detroit Three automakers, mortgage lending giant Rocket Cos. and all four of Detroit’s professional sports teams — released a joint statement on Tuesday saying they are united on principles such as the right to vote, equitable access to the ballot, and the avoidance of any government actions that reduce participation in elections.
But the state Senate’s Republican leader indicated Tuesday that he and fellow GOP lawmakers would press forward with the proposed changes in a bid to guarantee every vote is “handled and counted the same.”
The Republican-controlled state Senate is soon expected to start hearings on wide-ranging legislation that would require photo identification to vote in person, ban the unsolicited statewide mass mailing of absentee ballot applications and restrict the hours in which people could drop their ballot in curbside boxes.
Voters applying for an absentee ballot — an increasingly popular choice under a 2018 constitutional amendment and during the coronavirus pandemic — would have to attach a copy of their ID.
Senate Republicans contend their new bills would ensure integrity and “restore trust” in the voting process.
But one management expert said the corporate backlash could cause an image problem for Republicans, who traditionally have been the allies of corporations and the business community.
If attempts to make it more difficult to vote were opposed only along party lines, said Jerry Davis, a professor of management at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, that would be one thing.
“If all of the biggest corporate employers in the state say, ‘We don’t like this law,’ it’s going to be really hard to say with a straight face, ‘But it’s still a good idea,'” Davis said. “If the business community and big chunks of the population and the statewide elected officials are opposed to a law, it’s going to be really hard to make a credible case in favor of it.”
Corporate, community backlash
The statement was signed by General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley, Stellantis NV Head of Americas Mike Manley, executives from all four Detroit professional sports teams and the leaders of auto suppliers, banks and other businesses. Other signatories include leaders of the Detroit Regional Chamber, Rocket Cos., Ilitch Holdings Inc., Henry Ford Health System, TCF Bank, Huntington Bancshares, DTE Energy and Barton Malow, among others. They said election laws must be developed in a bipartisan fashion.
“Government must support equitable access to the ballot to ensure that all eligible voters can exercise their rights,” the statement from state business leaders said. “Government must avoid actions that reduce participation in elections — particularly among historically disenfranchised communities, persons with disabilities, older adults, racial minorities and low-income voters.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Tuesday that the bills guarantee every vote is “handled and counted the same,” a “perfunctory step to equitable access.”
“This package’s move through the legislative process has only just begun, and I look forward to seeking the input of my colleagues across the aisle and all who have engaged in this process,” Shirkey said in a statement. “At all times we must use logic, not political sentiment or ‘wokeness,’ to build good public policy that will serve all Michiganders and safeguard our democracy.
“If having an ID is viewed as an obstacle to voting because there is a problem getting an ID, let’s solve that problem.”
The statement from the businesses came the same day crowds, led by the Detroit branch of the NAACP, gathered on the Michigan Capitol lawn to protest the Michigan Senate election bills.
“Michigan must not be polluted by the schemers who want to put voter suppression in the stream of our democracy,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president for the Detroit branch of the NAACP. “We have come too far to let any voter suppression turn us back.”
Wendell read the Michigan businesses’ letter to the crowd, praising it as a sign they “understand that these laws are suppression” and would influence lawmakers’ positions on the issue.
“They have lobbyists, and they give money, and if you stop the money, you stop the honey from flowing into offices,” he said.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the Senate bills “ridiculous” and argued they would hit Detroit and minority communities the hardest.
“This is an attempt to keep people from voting because the sponsors of the bills don’t like the way they’re going to vote,” the longtime Democrat said. “We’re going to fight back against it. It’s just not right.”
Duggan called the involvement of Michigan corporations “remarkable” and said they likely felt the pressure after corporations in Georgia took similar stances.
But a Michigan Republican Party spokesman said the proposed legislation is being twisted by its opponents.
“We agree that our public officials have an obligation to continuously improve and strengthen our election processes because public faith in the security and integrity of our elections is fundamental,” the GOP’s Ted Goodman said in a statement. “We won’t stand for lies and mischaracterizations from the left when it comes to election integrity efforts to preserve public confidence in our elections and to preserve democracy.”
UM’s Davis noted that a backlash ensued against Georgia-based companies, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, after they did not speak out against a state voting bill before it was signed into law.
“You don’t want to be stuck in the situation that they found themselves in, which is not having stood up in advance,” he said. “Corporations are on notice that it’s incumbent on them to speak up in advance because once the bill has been signed, there’s no way to regain the moral high ground that they might have had.”
Farley, in comments to Ford employees last week and shared Tuesday in a statement to The Detroit News, highlighted the Dearborn automaker’s policy of making federal election days company holidays to make it easier for employees to vote.
“Ford believes that equitable access to voting rights for all people is the bedrock of a democratic society,” he said. “We’re also aware that the right to vote in a free and fair election has been hard won in our nation, particularly for groups that have been historically disenfranchised. That’s why we support initiatives that promote equitable access and do not disproportionately affect any segment of the population.”
Ford, Farley said, “urges elected officials across the country to work together in a bipartisan way to protect and enhance the right to vote.”
Barra addressed the issue in a LinkedIn post last week in which she noted the Detroit automaker provides paid time off for voting and has encouraged its employees to volunteer at the polls.
GM is “calling on state lawmakers across the nation to work together in a bipartisan way to ensure that any changes to voting laws preserve and enhance the most precious element of democracy — the right to vote in a fair, free, and equitable manner,” she said. “Anything short of that is unacceptable.”
It’s a tricky balancing act to speak out, or not, on highly charged political issues and risk alienating some customers. But, Davis said, “the core constituency for taking political stands like this is not so much the consumers as the employees of the company.”
That might be especially true for the Detroit automakers and their workforces, he said, because they historically have employed more minority workers and would be more likely to be affected by such laws.
Republicans have said changes are needed to ensure election integrity following a surge in absentee voting in 2020. More than 5.5 million people voted in Michigan’s presidential election — a record number and the highest percentage of voting-age residents to cast a ballot in 60 years.
Republicans have argued the changes are attempts to ensure against voter fraud, including checking the signatures on absentee ballots. In a post-election decision, a state judge ruled invalid Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s guidance issued to Michigan clerks in early October that absentee ballot signatures could be presumed to be accurate, saying she should have followed the state’s rule-making process.
Some Republicans have claimed without evidence the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump despite his 154,000-vote, or 3-percentage-point, loss to Joe Biden in the battleground state.
Most of the proposed bills are expected to be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer if they reach her desk.
But Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser has said the party wants to blend together voting bills proposed in the House and Senate for a petition initiative. If Republicans gathered enough signatures — more than 340,000 would be needed — the GOP-controlled Legislature could approve the proposal into law without Whitmer being able to veto it.