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Judge voids Michigan voter ride ban

A federal judge has issued an injunction against Michigan’s voter transportation ban, NBC News reported on Friday, September 18, 2020. The judge said it conflicts with federal election law. Read story here.

Is this law a Republican voter suppression effort? No and yes. The law’s been on the books since 1895, so you can’t accuse Republicans of passing it to hinder voting in the 2020 election. But the Republican-controlled legislature tried to get the lawsuit dismissed (see pleading here), so you could argue the GOP is trying to suppress voting this November by attempting to keep the law in effect.

The lawsuit was brought by Priorities USA, which had legal standing to sue because the organization would be subject to criminal penalties for giving rides to carless students and other voters. The law made it a misdemeanor to transport voters to polls unless they’re unable to walk. We can assume that in 1895 everyone either walked, rode a horse, or rode in a horse-drawn carriage to polling places. Some may even have crawled (photo, left).

Priorities USA argued the law hindered GOTV (get out the vote) efforts, which the organization termed “a common organizing tactic within
the African American community.” Their legal brief (read it here) contended “private transportation is expensive and public transportation is unreliable in the Detroit area.” Prior to filing the lawsuit, Priorities USA sent letters to the state’s county prosecutors asking if they intended to enforce it. Most didn’t respond and the few who did were noncommital. Priorities USA then sued the state.

While the judge’s decision isn’t yet available online, you can often deduce what the basis of a decision is by reading the arguments, and it seems clear from Priorities USA’s brief that the decision was based on a conflict with federal law, not federal preemption; specifically, it was in conflict with federal regulations “allow[ing] organizations to arrange for vehicles to transport voters to the polls.”

Conflict and preemption are different legal concepts. Conflict is what the word implies; preemption means federal law supersedes or overrides state law. While elections are conducted by states, typically through county-level election officials, federal offices may be on the ballot, which makes those ballots subject to regulation by Congress and the Federal Election Commission.

Photo below: This mode of voter transportation has always been legal in Michigan. Note the social distancing.

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