Battleground Michigan: GOP joins with militant far right in campaign against democracy
Right-wing groups have launched an unusual political campaign in Michigan, uniting major Republican donors — including Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s former education secretary — with far-right militants in an effort to exploit the state’s petition rules and bypass the normal legislative process. If successful, this could lead to the veto-proof enactment of a series of bills that would sharply restrict voting rights, curtail the state’s public health powers and direct taxpayer money to private schools.
In mid-March, a far-right group called Stand Up Michigan launched a campaign called Four Signatures for Freedom, seeking to gather at least 100,000 voter signatures for four petitions in support of conservative policies similar to those enacted in several deep-red states. But Stand Up Michigan appears extreme even by current Republican standards: Tammy Clark, the group’s executive director, has suggested that the Declaration of Independence allows for the abolition of the federal government, jokingly described herself as a “domestic terrorist” and repeatedly echoed Donald Trump’s false claims that the presidential election was stolen. A precursor group to Stand Up Michigan helped organize a protest that drew some of the men later arrested as part of an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The petitions the group is currently promoting include “Secure MI Vote,” which would limit voters’ access to absentee ballots and impose new voter ID requirements; “Unlock Michigan 2,” which would strictly limit the government’s ability to impose emergency public health restrictions; and two petitions related to a “school choice” initiative called “Let MI Kids Learn,” which enjoys the strong backing of DeVos and her family foundations. The group is also seeking to sign up conservative voters to serve as election poll workers with the aim of embedding right-wing volunteers at voting locations next November.
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In recent weeks, signature gathering has been taking place across the state, outside dollar stores, grocery markets, gyms, churches and more. This past Saturday, reported Bridge Michigan’s Jonathan Oosting, every seat at Donald Trump’s rally in the state’s Washington Township bore a copy of the Secure MI Vote petition along with instructions for signature collection.
Democrats and advocacy groups have documented examples of paid petition circulators misleading the public about the contents of these petitions, both by overtly lying about the measures they promote — which is not illegal in Michigan — and also by falsely claiming that the petitions are merely a means of getting the proposals on the ballot next November. That’s technically possible, but under Michigan’s eccentric process, if the petitions are successful then the state’s Republican-dominated legislature can — and almost certainly will — pass them automatically, with no possibility of veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and no chance for the public to weigh in.
What’s even more alarming, progressive advocates say, is that disparate conservative interests have found common cause in collaborating on these petitions, offering still more evidence that far-right insurgent groups formerly seen as beyond the pale are increasingly coming to dominate the Republican Party, at the federal level and across the states.
The power of petitions in Michigan
Michigan is one of only two states where citizens can indirectly propose legislation via petitions known as citizen initiatives that then go straight to the legislature. Many states allow for citizens to petition for ballot initiatives, giving the electorate a chance to vote directly on proposed legislation or constitutional amendments. But Michigan law also allows for a different and strikingly undemocratic procedure of legislating by petition.
Under that provision, if at least 8% of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election sign a petition in favor of a policy, that proposal can go directly before the legislature for an up or down vote, which, unlike most other legislation, would not be subject to the veto of a governor.
Since the 1960s, said Democratic State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, only nine “citizen initiative” bills have passed in Michigan. But today’s dynamic in the Mitten State, with a Republican-controlled state legislature and a Democratic governor — Whitmer, targeted in the aforementioned kidnapping plot during the anti-pandemic shutdown protests of 2020 — has changed everything.
Notably, one of the major petition drives underway in Michigan, Secure MI Vote, effectively replicates a package of nearly 40 bills introduced in the Michigan Senate last spring to restrict voting rights, many of which were subsequently passed — and then vetoed by Whitmer.
As Salon’s Igor Derysh reported last September, Michigan Republicans proposed their Secure MI Vote petition with the secretary of state’s office before the bills were even vetoed, amounting, in Democrats’ view, to a two-track plan to force the voter restrictions through one way or another.
After Whitmer vetoed the bills, said Nancy Wang, executive director of the state voting rights advocacy group Voters Not Politicians, Republicans admitted that passing them the traditional way had never been their objective. “Very openly, when they started this legislative effort,” said Wang, “the head of the GOP said, ‘Well this isn’t our end goal. We know they’re going to be vetoed and we’re going to use that momentum to fuel this petition drive.'”
If passed, Secure MI Vote would require voter ID for both in-person voting and requesting absentee ballots, require partial Social Security numbers for voter registration, forbid county clerks from accepting funds from outside entities to help administer elections and prohibit election officials from sending mail-in ballots or applications unless they are directly requested by voters.
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“There are all these different ways that they would make elections harder for people to participate in and for clerks to administer,” said Wang.
Democrats also say the measure would amount to overriding a constitutional amendment passed in Michigan just four years ago, with overwhelming public support, that substantially expanded voting access. In 2018, two-thirds of Michigan voters passed a ballot initiative to provide for no-excuse absentee voting and automatic and same-day voter registration, among other provisions. That ballot initiative, “Promote the Vote,” supported by the ACLU, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, won nearly three million votes, 67 percent of the total. But if the Secure MI Vote petition can gather just 340,047 signatures — the 8% threshold required by Michigan law — that small sliver of the electorate will be able to send the measure before the Michigan legislature, where Republicans are sure to pass it.
“It’s an end-run around the normal legislative process,” said State Sten. Erika Geiss, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “They are using a provision in our state Constitution that allows the legislature to claw back a ballot initiative that was a citizen initiative.”
In addition to the voter suppression initiative, there are also two petitions associated with Let MI Kids Learn and Unlock Michigan 2.
Ostensibly a student scholarship plan, Let MI Kids Learn would allow individuals and companies to claim tax credits for donating to programs that would provide substantial funds to help families pay for private school tuition as well as far more modest amounts to cover education-related expenses for public school students. Although Michigan’s constitution has a strict prohibition on public funding for private schools, Let MI Kids Learn attempts to circumvent that by establishing a pass-through organization that would distribute scholarships and allow funders to use donations to offset their taxes.
To critics, the initiative is a thinly-veiled effort to create a voucher system in Michigan, after two previous efforts to pass ballot initiatives allowing for public aid to private schools — including a voucher scheme led and lavishly funded by the DeVos family in 2000 — failed by huge margins.
As with Secure MI Vote, Republican legislation covering similar ground as Let MI Kids Learn passed in 2021, but was vetoed by Whitmer, who cited the high cost of the measure and charged that Republicans’ bill would “turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy.”
Sen. Polehanki, the minority vice-chair of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee and a two-time Michigan teacher of the year, said that when Let MI Kids Learn was initially proposed as Senate Bill 687, she challenged Republican supporters on how they would account for the $1 billion deficit it would create in the state budget over subsequent years. Polehanki also noted that the measure was transparently designed to favor private schools, since it would allow for private school students to receive a benefit of about $7,830, to go towards tuition, while public school students would only be eligible for a maximum $500 benefit to pay for curriculum materials or miscellaneous education expenses.
But just as Republicans’ voting restrictions found a second chance in this year’s petition drive, in early February, DeVos helped launch the Let MI Kids Learn petition initiative at an online event where she described the proposal as a means “for parents to take control of education in Michigan.” DeVos and her family are also among the initiative’s top funders, with her and her family members donating a combined $350,000 to the ballot committee circulating the petitions.
“It’s been Betsy DeVos’ longtime dream to privatize education in Michigan. This is her attempt to flout the Michigan Constitution to put public dollars into private religious schools.”
“It’s been DeVos’ longtime dream to privatize education in Michigan. She’ll say things like ‘school choice leads to greater Kingdom gain,’ and that ‘public schools have displaced the church as the center of communities,'” said Polehanki. “This is an attempt by Betsy and her GOP megadonors to flout the Michigan Constitution to put public dollars into private religious schools. In a nutshell, it’s another one of her school voucher attempts.”
Lastly, there’s the Unlock Michigan 2 initiative, which would build on an earlier, successful citizens’ petition launched in 2020 that gathered more than half a million signatures to strip some of the governor’s public health emergency powers.
In 2020, the original Unlock Michigan campaign, supported with close to $700,000 in funding from a group associated with state Senate Republicans, petitioned the public to overturn a 1945 law that gave the governor unilateral power to issue executive orders in a state of emergency. Today’s “sequel,” as supporters are calling it, would limit the state health department’s emergency powers to 28 days and require the department to get approval from both houses of the legislature before declaring a state of emergency.
When it’s legal to lie
Amid the initial Unlock Michigan campaign in 2020, the Detroit Free Press obtained video evidence that showed a private canvassing company, under contract with the Unlock campaign, explicitly instructing petition gatherers to use misleading or illegal tactics in gathering signatures, including by lying to voters.
Today, a number of anecdotes suggest that those tactics are being replayed in the campaign to gather signatures for the current conservative petition initiatives under way. Because, as Polehanki said, “It’s legal to lie as a petition circulator in Michigan.”
In March, Samuel Robinson, a reporter with MLive, tweeted that he’d been approached by a paid petition circulator outside a Dollar Tree store, soliciting signatures for Let MI Kids Learn by claiming that he was “gathering signatures to help special needs kids.”
In January, Wang’s group, Voters Not Politicians, released a video recording of one petition-gatherer in Kalamazoo making an astonishing array of false claims in one four-minute span. The circulator, who said he’d been hired to come up from Florida and that he got paid by the signature, told voters that Unlock Michigan 2 was a measure to “stop COVID from spreading”; that Let MI Kids Learn would provide “scholarships for needy kids”; and, bizarrely, that Secure MI Vote would require two forms of ID in order to vote. Throughout the interaction, the circulator repeatedly insisted that the petition would only result in getting the issues on the ballot, not, as is almost certainly the case, that if the petitions gather enough signatures, the Republican legislature will pass them unilaterally.
“The ballot initiative will never actually go to the people, so it’s a farce,” said Geiss. “They are lying by saying that the people will get to vote on it, because they never will.”
The same month, Rep. Amos O’Neal, a Democratic member of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, said that while he was waiting for a haircut, a petition circulator came into his barbershop, telling the largely Black clientele and employees there that the Secure MI Vote petition he was sharing would “help improve voting.” O’Neal said the circulator, a young Black man, made it clear that he’d been hired to gather signatures and also that he couldn’t explain what the petition would really do. It fell to O’Neal to explain what the measure meant to the people waiting in the shop — how, in his words, it “would roll back the hands of time to [before] the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
“I really felt offended that this person would come into a place like that, doing something that’s detrimental to all of us, and not know,” said O’Neal, saying he had to educate the circulator himself on how the initiative would “have an adverse effect on you and all the folks who look like you.”
To O’Neal, it was evidence that the campaign has made a concerted and cynical ploy to hire canvassers of color to collect signatures in majority-minority neighborhoods by misrepresenting what the petitions would mean for those communities.
“Between the Democratic caucus and the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, we are incredibly concerned about the targeting [of communities of color] and how they’re misrepresenting themselves,” agreed Geiss. “It’s all a lie. And quite honestly, it’s in service of the Big Lie from 2020 because they really don’t want people who they think are undesirable to have access to the ballot.”
“It just goes to show that the tactics are getting more novel and more disturbing,” said Wang. “Anything goes. And it doesn’t seem to matter to people with political power how they’re staying in power, even if it’s very anti-democratic.”
What is Stand Up Michigan?
But if the methods alone are troubling, advocates say the coalition behind them is even more concerning. While all of the petition initiatives have their own individual ballot committees, one entity is largely responsible for transforming them into a joint platform. That’s Stand Up Michigan, as mentioned above the state’s leading far-right umbrella group, which has made common cause with some of the most marginal figures in the conservative movement, including individuals responsible for making violent threats against the government, but which is nonetheless becoming a powerful force in mainstream Republican politics.
The founder of Stand Up Michigan told podcast listeners that his nutritional supplement would turn their bodies into “an environment of greatness” and “dominate” the COVID virus.
In the spring of 2020, the group that would become Stand Up Michigan emerged at the head of the earliest waves of right-wing protests against pandemic public health restrictions. Initially founded as a Facebook group called Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine, the group was led by Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor from Kalamazoo who is currently running for governor but at the time was involved in a health supplement multi-level marketing scheme. (In 2020, Soldano told listeners of his podcast that a nutritional supplement called Juice Plus+ would turn their bodies “into an environment of greatness” that would easily “dominate” COVID-19.)
That April, Soldano’s Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine, which had quickly gained close to 400,000 followers on Facebook, reportedly helped organize a protest at Michigan’s Capitol that drew hundreds of protesters, some bearing assault rifles. Two armed protesters who were captured in an iconic photograph taken by Polehanki inside the Capitol, were among the group arrested several months later for plotting to kidnap Whitmer and try her for treason over her pandemic response. (This week a Michigan jury is deliberating on charges against four of the men accused of taking part in the plot.)
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When Facebook subsequently shut down Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine, Soldano launched Stand Up Michigan as its replacement, tapping into the same energies.
In a 2020 In These Times article, journalist Jacob Wheeler notes that Stand Up Michigan’s activism helped foster the atmosphere of extreme anti-government resentment in which the kidnapping plot was hatched.
Since then, the group, now largely under the leadership of its other co-founder and current president, Ron Armstrong, former mayor of the rural western Michigan town of Newaygo, as well as executive director Tammy Clark, has hosted a number of other protests against public health restrictions, and has involved itself in multiple conservative causes.
In recordings of local meetings over the last year obtained by Salon, Armstrong and Clark have cast Stand Up Michigan as a movement of the Christian right, recruiting conservative churches to help establish county chapters that might evade government oversight, as Clark explained in one 2021 address, and comparing their movement to apocryphal stories of the “Black Robe Regiment,” in which church leaders are said to have led the charge in the Revolutionary War. (Historians have long debunked such claims, but the narrative has become common currency in Christian right circles.) Clark has frequently spoken of the U.S. in Christian nationalist terms and Armstrong has described Stand Up Michigan’s cause as “a spiritual war,” pitting patriots against “demonic” opponents.
The group has also aligned itself with other far-right communities, including the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which argues that local sheriffs represent the highest form of authority provided for in the U.S. Constitution, and that almost all other forms of local, state and federal government are therefore invalid. In one June 2021 meeting, Clark argued that the Declaration of Independence provides for abolishing the government when it becomes tyrannical.
“You might think that makes me a domestic terrorist if I talk like that today,” Clark said. “I’m relying on our founding documents. This is how Stand Up Michigan was born.”
Despite this militant rhetoric and far-right associations, Democratic leaders say that Stand Up Michigan has amassed substantial influence within Michigan’s GOP. Stand Up Michigan says the same.
In a recording of one meeting this March, Clark spoke about the group’s growing clout among Michigan Republicans, particularly through the current petition campaigns:
They know that we are coming. And like Michael [Farage, a conservative activist in Grand Rapids who in 2020 helped lead a Patriot group demonstration that burned absentee ballot applications] said, they are afraid of us. …They don’t really like us. Oh, they love us every four year when they want doors knocked, but they don’t realize we’re awake, we’re here, we’ve taken over, step aside. And so they are starting to allot money and funding and financing to the leaders of the grassroots groups, including Stand Up Michigan, to go get this done, because they support a lot of what we are doing. And now they’ve realized that they have to work with us. They don’t have any choice, or we’ll fire them. So that’s kind of what’s happening right now. There’s a real revolution going on inside.
In the same talk, Clark claimed she had “staff within the GOP hunting and searching for me right now for locations where we can set up these petition drives all around the state” — that is, gathering signatures for the various petitions, and also recruiting up to 5,000 people to work as “election inspectors” in August and November.
As Clark continued:
There’s three petitions and then there’s the election protection team. Remember, we talked about that [when] we had [Michigan GOP Election Integrity Director] Matthew Seifried here. … And we developed this with the Michigan GOP. Shockingly. They are working with us to help in those areas to recruit 5,000 election workers for the GOP. Because shame on the GOP, it’s their fault that our election was stolen. It’s 100 percent their fault.
A dangerous new coalition
Clear signs of partnership are also coming from the other ballot campaigns. In mid-March, reportedly facing a shortfall in the number of signatures, the DeVos-backed Let MI Kids Learn campaign announced it was combining forces with Stand Up Michigan to work on all four petition drives together.
In an email the campaign sent to its supporters, the campaign asked for volunteers to join the same weekend of action that Stand Up Michigan was then promoting, as part of a joint effort to “restore freedom this spring.”
“We will be getting the word out,” read the email, “along with our friends at Stand Up Michigan and other important groups, to join us in gathering citizens from every county to come, sign petitions.”
Advocates say this level of partnership represents an evolution in DeVos’s advocacy, from a concern strictly around school privatization to initiatives to restrict the vote and tie the hands of public health officials.
“These efforts are consolidating into one power structure, and the Republican establishment is perfectly comfortable with having these extremists out there generating a lot of energy.”
“I think it just verifies what we were suspecting: that a lot of these efforts are really consolidating into one power structure, and the [Republican] establishment here in the state is perfectly comfortable with having these kinds of extremists out there, spreading their message and getting support and generating a lot of energy,” said Wang. “It’s an extreme, subversive kind of anti-democratic effort, but then it’s also blessed by the Michigan Republican party, so it’s this mix of different factions on the right working together.”
“There is an overlap of leadership between these different efforts, and now we’re seeing very clear connections between them all,” Wang continued. “Regardless of whether they started off as grassroots or with some kind of extremist energy behind them, they’ve all been endorsed, and sometimes funded outright, by establishment Republicans.”
In response to these joint conservative efforts, a number of progressive and Democratic campaigns have emerged to urge Michiganders to be wary of what petitions they’re offered, and perhaps to “decline to sign,” as one counter-campaign has phrased it.
Rep. O’Neal said that members of the Legislative Black Caucus have been organizing with labor groups, churches and the NAACP to launch local education drives about these petitions. The key, said Wang, is urging people to read the 100-word synopsis atop each petition. Unlike whatever petition circulators may tell people on the street, the written summaries must be approved by the state and so must be factual.
Wang’s group has also gone on the offensive, launching a petition drive of its own to propose a ballot initiative for a state constitutional amendment that would protect the fundamental right to vote without harassment or interference.
“Michigan is a battleground,” said Wang. “We are pulled in all these different directions, with groups that are trying to perpetuate the Big Lie and change election outcomes, and then voter-led citizens’ groups like ours that are trying to spread the word that this is happening and it poses a threat to our democracy in Michigan.”
“It’s about power and control by a small subset of the population over the rest of us,” agreed Sen. Geiss. “We need to do everything in our power to stop that.”
Read more on the battle over public education: