Commentary: The Governor Pivots

Jul 5, 2012

I don’t know how Governor Snyder celebrated the Fourth of July yesterday, but I have a strong hunch he didn’t stop by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s place for some barbecue.

The Governor stunned the secretary and other fellow Republicans Tuesday by vetoing three election bills. He said he feared they might be confusing.

“Voting rights are precious and we need to work especially hard to make it possible for people to vote,” he said.

Some Democrats think that making it harder for some people to vote is exactly what some Republicans want to do. They contend that rules requiring voters to show photo ID and asking them questions about citizenship are designed to intimidate minorities. Snyder’s vetoes hinted there is something to that. Indeed, two of the vetoed bills seem especially suspect. One would have required all voters to affirm they are American citizens before getting an absentee ballot. That seems fairly ridiculous, given that you legally have to be a citizen before registering to vote.

The second vetoed bill would have required any group conducting a voter registration drive to register with the state and receive some sort of training, which sounds like it might present constitutional problems.

But the governor’s third veto was more surprising and raises some interesting questions. That was a veto of a bill requiring people to show a photo ID to pick up an absentee ballot.  Now, Republicans a few years ago finally got the state to start requiring people to show photo ID when they show up to vote on Election Day.

That’s something Democrats long opposed, and which former Attorney General Frank Kelley said was unconstitutional.

But if the governor thinks it isn’t right to require someone to show photo ID to cast an absentee ballot, how then can it be legal for them to have to show it to vote in person?

By the way, almost nobody noticed, but while the governor did veto these bills, he signed another eleven election reform bills, some of which may have a significant positive impact.

These new laws include one that makes it illegal for candidates to use their campaign funds to pay criminal defense bills, as Kwame Kilpatrick did. Another requires any group trying to collect signatures to put a law on the ballot to get their petitions approved first, which would prevent the kind of mess we are now seeing with the proposed emergency manager repeal.

The approved parts of the package also set sentencing guidelines for election law violations, put some restrictions on what elected officials can send voters, and require new political parties to disclose their donors and notify the state when they plan to hold a caucus, all designed to avoid things like the fake Tea Party that Democrats tried to fool voters with two years ago.

The governor’s vetoes came just as some were concluding that he was not really a moderate at all, but had moved sharply to the right. However, it now looks as if he governs on sort of a case-by-case basis.

That may not always be consistent, or, as in the case of voter ID, strictly logical. But it is how most people think. Two years from now, we may learn if they feel that this governor is one of us.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst.  Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.