Michigan Sued Over Ban on Transporting Voters to Polls

(CN) – Liberal voting rights group Priorities USA is asking a federal judge to overturn part of Michigan election law that makes it a crime to hire transportation to take voters to the polls unless they are physically unable to walk.

Voters wait in line in Southfield, Mich., on Nov. 6, 2018. (Clarence Tabb, Jr/Detroit News via AP, File)

The lawsuit filed in Detroit federal court by the Washington-based super PAC seeks to overturn a provision that, in certain circumstances, makes it a misdemeanor to arrange for vehicles to transport voters to their polling place. The complaint filed late Tuesday also takes aim at another provision that penalizes groups and people who help voters fill out their absentee ballots.

Priorities USA argues the provisions are unconstitutional because they violate voters’ rights to political expression and association under the First and 14th Amendment. They are not needed, the group says, because criminal laws are already on the books to combat voter fraud.

“Together, the voter transportation ban and the absentee ballot organizing ban make it even more difficult for voters for whom voting is already difficult – in particular, voters without access to private transportation – to vote,” the filing states.

Conservatives say such laws are necessary to eliminate voter fraud, including paid bussing to the polls and suspect absentee ballots delivered by groups that “harvest” ballots. But voting rights advocates say such measures suppress the vote and burden marginalized groups. The two provisions at issue make it more difficult for low-income and minority voters, students and the elderly to vote, Priorities USA says.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Laura Cox accused Priorities USA and Democratic allies of attacking Michigan’s election laws.

“In states without strong absentee ballot protections, we have seen numerous examples of massive vote harvesting, and other forms of election fraud. The Michigan Republican Party will fight any attempt to undermine the integrity of our state’s elections or the security of our citizens’ ballots,” Cox said in a statement.

But Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said the laws made it “increasingly difficult for marginalized and underrepresented communities” to cast their votes.

“This new litigation is a continuation of Priorities’ commitment to ensuring that all Americans who are eligible to vote have the ability to do so,” Cecil said in a statement.

The restrictions on hiring vehicles to transport voters do not apply to people who are physically unable to walk. But people who are blind or epileptic and other people who cannot drive for other reasons could run afoul of the law, the complaint states.

According to the lawsuit, Uber decided not to offer free and discounted rides during the 2018 election in Michigan because of the restriction.

“Even a neighbor who shares a taxi to the polls risks criminal liability for doing so under the voter transportation ban,” the lawsuit states.

Anyone found guilty of violating the restriction under Michigan’s election laws faces up to 90 days in prison and a $500 fine, the group says.

Restrictions on how absentee ballots are collected and returned to election officials bar groups from educating people on how to fill out and cast an absentee ballot, according to the lawsuit.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, claimed in a recent report on so-called ballot harvesting that political operatives and groups can access and collect voters’ absentee ballots, making the process, which is legal is 27 states and in the District of Columbia, susceptible to forgery.

But because of the provision, political campaigns, and groups dedicated to mobilizing voters are restricted in what they can do to help, Priorities USA says. The law is “particularly troublesome” because of recent changes to Michigan law that have protected voting rights, including no-excuse absentee and early voting, the complaint says.

“The absentee ballot organizing ban, which directly regulates speech by criminalizing offers to assist a voter in returning an absentee ballot application, will have a chilling effect on efforts to educate voters about those benefits,” the 18-page filing states.

The group wants a judge to find the restrictions are preempted by federal laws, as well as a permanent injunction that prohibits their enforcement. Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is named as the sole defendant. Nessel’s spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-Mckinney said her office had not been served and declined to comment.

Last month, Priorities USA filed another lawsuit against the state, claiming it uses an “arbitrary and standardless” voter fraud law to match signatures against records provided in prior elections. It wants a judge to strike down that law too.

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