July 5, 2020
COVID-19 continued to dominate the news amid continuing global protests about racial injustice. Meanwhile, the state prepared for its August primary and a budget deal was struck.
VOTE FROM HOME
Michigan’s major party primary election is Tuesday, August 4. This year voting at home by absentee ballot is especially important and available to all voters with no excuse needed. Voting at home minimizes lines and crowding at clerks’ offices and polling places. Voting at home will protect the health of voters and poll workers during the pandemic. The Department of State reports a 350 percent increase in absentee ballot requests compared to the same time before the 2016 primary.
Get a ballot — To get an absentee ballot, you must fill out an absentee ballot application. Every registered voter in Michigan was sent an absentee ballot application to fill out and return to your local clerk. If you’ve misplaced yours, you can apply on-line directly at www.michigan.gov/vote and the completed on-line application will be sent to your local clerk electronically (a new feature of the SOS Web site). Or at that same Web site, you can print out the application form and mail it or deliver it to your local clerk.
Some deadlines — Requests by mail to have an absent voter ballot mailed to you must be received by your clerk no later than 5 p.m. the Friday before the election (July 31). Given the USPS difficulties in delivering timely mail during the pandemic due to staffing shortages, get your mailed application for a ballot in as early as possible. If you’re already registered to vote at your current address, you can also request an absent voter ballot in person at your clerk’s office anytime up to 4 p.m. on the day prior to the election. If you’re registering to vote or updating your address by appearing at your clerk’s office on Election Day, you can request an absent voter ballot at the same time you register. If you request your AV ballot the day before the election or on Election Day, you must vote the ballot in the clerk’s office.
The ballot — Voters have to choose to vote in the Democratic Party column OR the Republican Party column of the ballot for 11 offices. You may not cross-over between the two columns; doing so will invalidate your vote. In addition to primary candidates for the two major parties, there may be some local millages or proposals on your ballot. Remember to vote both sides of the ballot. Also remember to sign the green-trimmed envelope before mailing it or delivering it to your local clerk. It takes two stamps to mail the ballot.
Returning the ballot — Currently you have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to complete the ballot and return it to the clerk’s office. Your ballot will not be counted unless your signature is on the return green-trimmed envelope and matches your signature on file. If you received assistance voting the ballot, then the signature of the person who helped you must also be on the return envelope. Only you, a family member or person residing in your household, a mail carrier, or election official is authorized to deliver your signed absent voter ballot to your clerk’s office. You can track your absentee ballot at www.michigan.gov/vote.
Fraud fears — Oregon has been using vote by mail for 22 years. Out of over 15 million votes cast, they have had only 15 fraud cases. Voter fraud is a felony in Michigan, punishable by up to 4 years in jail.
Jump in cases — The last three weeks of June and early July saw Michigan’s COVID-19 confirmed cases jump precipitously upward though not nearly as high as the peak on April 3. Now all counties in Michigan have at least one confirmed case.
At this writing the total confirmed cases in Michigan are 65,533; with an additional 7,048 probable cases. Deaths total 5,972, with another 246 probable COVID-19 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control says the actual number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. may be 10 times the number actually testing positive. A large percentage of COVID-19 victims, perhaps a third or more, are asymptomatic or presymptomatic, shedding virus in the community without self-awareness of the danger they are posing to others. Wearing masks indoors and outdoors when not at home, social distancing, washing hands frequently, staying away from large indoor gatherings or limiting one’s time in indoor gatherings are all good practices designed to contain the spread of the virus.
Outbreak — The Governor’s Stay Home order issued March 24 was relaxed somewhat for Upper Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula before Memorial Day, putting those two regions in Phase 5 of her 6 Phase economic re-start plan. Most of the Lower Peninsula stayed in Phase 4.
The Lansing region was especially hard hit in late June by an outbreak connected to Harper’s Brew Pub, a large and popular watering hole for college students and young people, that infected more than 160 people in 15 counties during the 8 days it was open earlier in June. Governor Whitmer had hoped to move Lower Michigan into Phase 5 by the July 4 holiday, which would have allowed businesses such as movies, gyms and fitness centers to reopen statewide. However, in an announcement on July1, the Governor ordered the shutdown of indoor service at bars in most of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and delayed re-opening of high contact, indoor venues. Ingham County also prohibited bars and restaurants from allowing more than 75 patrons, toughening a state rule that allows a maximum of 50 percent capacity indoors.
Auto insurance rebate — Governor Whitmer and the Department of Insurance and Financial Services in May ordered auto insurers to detail plans for customer refunds or premium waivers given their “reduced risk due to extreme reductions in driving during the COVID-19 pandemic.” At the height of the pandemic in April, Michigan traffic volumes dropped by more than 40 percent and the number of crashes fell by 60 percent, according to state and federal data. Many auto insurers have or will pay back Michigan motorists 15 or 20 percent of the premium payments they made in April and May. Look for yours.
Schools can re-open — Governor Whitmer ordered the closure of Michigan’s public and private K-12 school buildings in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools switched to remote learning for the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students for the remainder of the school year, mostly through online classes and printed packets delivered to homebound students.
The Governor created a school reopening advisory panel in May, which made recommendations for the 63-page MI Safe Schools Plan released June 30. It permits Michigan schools to re-open if the pandemic doesn’t get worse and Michigan stays in Phase 4 or 5. Face coverings for staff and students are required (in Phase 4 locations) or recommended (in Phase 5 locations), limits on indoor assemblies and even outdoor events are included, but notably no social distancing requirements are in the Plan. The absence of a social-distancing requirement will allow schools the option of returning all students to school every day, rather than having rotating schedules. Allowing all students to return to school full-time also gives parents of many students the ability to return to jobs, an important factor in re-starting Michigan’s economy.
Legal challenge — The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to take up questions on the extent of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency authority at the request of a federal judge, but will wait to do so until the Court of Appeals has weighed in on a similar state-level case brought by the Republican-led Michigan Legislature.
STATE GOVERNMENT UPDATES
Budget deal — The Republican-led Legislature and Democrat Governor Whitmer agreed on June 29 to fill a $2.2 billion budget hole for the current fiscal year. It builds on an $880 million agreement Whitmer and GOP leaders finalized June 17. Michigan will send $512 million in federal funding to K-12 schools, $200 million to universities and community colleges and $150 million to local governments. Another $53 million will be used to provide hazard pay for teachers willing to return to work despite public health risks from the virus. This will offset a $256 million cut in state aid to schools, a $200 million reduction to universities and colleges and a $97 million cut to local governments.
To avoid further cuts, $350 million from the state’s $1.2 billion Budget Stabilization Fund (the rainy day fund) will be used. Federal funding will replace $475 million in state spending for various public safety expenses and $340 million will be available because of enhanced Medicaid match dollars from the federal government. There is $94 million remaining in unspent federal relief funding. Michigan will save $490 million through hiring and discretionary spending freezes, layoffs and “other identified savings” in state government. More federal relief is being sought, crucial for balancing the FY21 proposed budget not yet adopted.
Lewis Cass Building renamed — In response to the calls for removing symbols of racial injustice, Governor Whitmer has issued an Executive Order renaming the Lewis Cass Building on the Capitol Campus in Lansing to the Elliott-Larsen Building, honoring the two former legislators, Democrat Daisy Elliott and Republican Melvin Larsen, who sponsored the landmark 1977 civil rights law in Michigan. Michigan’s nine Democratic members of Congress recently supported replacing the statue of Lewis Cass at the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Lewis Cass was a territorial governor of Michigan before it was a state, represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate from 1845-1857 and served as President James Buchanan’s secretary of state. He was a slave owner and supported the expansion of slavery into northern states. As President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, Cass was involved in the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands. Cass still has a prominent Detroit street, a Detroit high school, a statue in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., a Michigan county and several Michigan cities named after him.
Redistricting — On June 24, a semifinalist pool of 200 applicants for the state’s first Citizen’s Redistricting Commission were drawn by an actuarial consulting firm using a statistically weighted formula, as the state constitution requires, to reflect the demographic and geographic makeup of the state based on Census data. There were more than 9,300 applicants to help redraw Michigan’s political boundaries for federal and state legislative districts using the 2020 Census and public input. The cities with the most members in the pool are Detroit (nine), Grand Rapids (eight), and Rochester Hills, Lansing and Midland (four each). The median age is 51. Legislative leaders may strike up to 20 people from the pool and then the final draw will be totally random and include four Republicans, four Democrats and five people who are unaffiliated with either major political party.
Guns in the Capitol — The Michigan Capitol Commission now has two legal opinions – from the Michigan Attorney General and from an outside legal counsel - saying it has the legal authority to determine policies governing firearms in the Capitol Building or on the grounds. The commission also received an opposing opinion from commission legal counsel, who is a top Senate Republican staff member.
Currently there is no policy forbidding firearms in the Capitol though there is a ban on signs in the Capitol to protect the walls and decorative elements from injury or destruction. An April 30 protest against the Governor’s stay-at-home orders drew some armed demonstrators to the grounds and the building. Long guns including military-style weapons and sidearms were visible on some trying to enter the House chamber and visiting the galleries above the chambers. Some legislators and staff felt intimidated and endangered by the presence of weapons held by angry protesters. Firearms are are prohibited or regulated in other public places like courtrooms and schools.
Due dates extended — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation recently extending the renewal date to September 30 for expired Michigan driver’s licenses, state ID cards, vehicle registrations and others if set to expire between May 1 and September 30.
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