Betsy DeVos Is Joining Michigan’s Far Right Militants in a Devious Campaign

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.

Stand Up Michigan, an extreme-right group, launched a campaign titled “Another Michigan” in mid-March. Four Signatures for FreedomThe group is trying to collect at least 100,000 signatures to support four petitions that support conservative policies similar to those in many 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. An earlier group called Stand Up Michigan organized a protest that attracted some of the men later detained as part of an investigation. 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 also seeks to sign up conservative voters as election poll workers to embed right-wing volunteers at voting sites next November.

Recent weeks have seen signature gathering Across the state, these events have been taking place outside of dollar stores, grocery markets and gyms. This Saturday, reports 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 opportunity 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 the most. only two states Where citizens can propose legislation indirectly via petitions known “The Electoral Petition” citizen initiatives These petitions can then be sent directly to the legislature. Many states allow citizens to petition for ballot initiative, which gives the electorate an opportunity to vote on proposed legislation and constitutional amendments. Michigan law allows for a very different, and undemocratic, method of legislating through petitions.

Below that provisionIf at least 8% of the voters who participated in the previous gubernatorial elections sign a petition in support of a policy proposal, it can be directly before the legislature for an either up or down vote. This is unlike most other legislation that would not be subject the governor’s veto.

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.

According to Nancy Wang, executive director at Voters Not Politicians, the Republicans admitted that they had never intended to pass the bills the traditional way after Whitmer vetoed them. “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.’”

Secure MI Vote, if passed, would require voter ID to vote in person and request absentee ballots. It would also require partial Social Security numbers to register voters. It would forbid county clerks accepting funds from outside entities to administer elections. It also prohibits election officials from sending out mail-in ballots and applications unless requested by voters.

“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 claim that the measure would override a Michigan constitutional amendment that was passed four years ago. This amendment had overwhelming public support and significantly expanded voting rights. Two-thirds of Michigan voters voted for the measure in 2018. ballot initiativeto include automatic and same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee vote, 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.”

There are two petitions that are associated with Let MI Kids Learn Michigan and Unlock MI 2.

Let MI Kids Learn is a student scholarship program. Individuals and companies can claim tax credits for donating funds that will help families pay private school tuition, as well as smaller amounts to cover education-related expenses of 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.

Critics say the initiative is a thinly disguised effort to create a voucher program in Michigan. 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 in 2021, Republican legislation covering similar ground to Let MI Kids Learn was passed by Whitmer. Whitmer cited high costs of the measure. charged that Republicans’ bill would “turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy.”

Sen. Polehanki is the minority vice chair of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee and is a two time Michigan Senator Teacher of the year, stated that Let MI Kids Learn was first proposed as a teacher of the year. Senate Bill 687She challenged Republican supporters to explain how they would account the $1 billion deficit it would cause in the state budget in subsequent years. Polehanki noted that the measure was clearly designed to favor private schools. Private school students would be eligible to receive a benefit amounting to $7,830 to pay tuition. Public school students would only have a $500 benefit to cover miscellaneous expenses or curriculum materials.

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 total of $350,000 will be donated to the ballot committee responsible for circulating the petitions.

“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.

2020: The original Unlock Michigan campaign will be supported by close to $700,000. funding A group of state Senate Republicans petitioned the public for the repeal of a 1945 law giving the governor unilateral authority to issue executive orders in a crisis. 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

The Unlock Michigan campaign’s initial phase in 2020 was a success. Detroit Free Press Video evidence obtained by Unlock showed that a private canvassing firm, under contract with the campaign, explicitly instructed petition gatherers to use misleading and illegal tactics to gather signatures, including lying to voters.

Anecdotes today suggest that these tactics are being retold in the current campaign to gather signatures for conservative petition initiatives. Because, as Polehanki said, “It’s legal to lie as a petition circulator in Michigan.”

Samuel Robinson, a reporter for MLive, was interviewed in March 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 making an incredible scene in Kalamazoo array of false claims In just four minutes. 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. The circulator insisted throughout the interaction that the petition would only result if the petitions are signed. This is not likely to be the case.

“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?

Advocates for the cause say that even though the methods are troubling enough, the coalition behind them is more alarming. All of the petitions are valid, Initiatives have their own ballot committees. However, one entity is responsible to transform them into a common platform. That’s Stand Up Michigan, as mentioned above the state’s leading far-right umbrella group, which has attracted and embraced 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.

Stand Up Michigan, which would eventually become the state’s largest right-wing group, emerged as the leader of the first wave of right-wing protests against the imposition of pandemic public health restrictions in the spring 2020. The group was originally founded as a group on Facebook called Michiganders Against Excessive Quintine. It was headed by Garrett Soldano, a Kalamazoo chiropractor, who was also involved with a multi-level marketing campaign for health supplements. (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 were captured by police in an iconic scene 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. charges Against four men accused of being part of the plot.

Soldano founded Stand Up Michigan after Facebook closed down Michiganders Against Excessive Qarantine. replacementTap into the same energies.

In 2020 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.

The group has hosted many other events since then, largely under the direction of Ron Armstrong, its co-founder and current President. He was also the former mayor of Newaygo in rural Michigan, as well as Tammy Clark, who is currently the executive director. protests He has participated in numerous conservative causes and voted against restrictions on public health.

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 largely apocryphal stories of the “Black Robe Regiment,” in which church leaders are said to have led the charge in the Revolutionary War. These claims have been debunked for years by historians, but the narrative has become mainstream. 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” movementThe argument is that local sheriffs are the highest form of authority allowed by the U.S. Constitution and that all other forms of local government, state, or federal government are invalid. Clark argued that the Declaration of Independence permits the government to be abolished if it becomes tyrannical in a June 2021 meeting.

“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 also affirms 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]They fear us, they say. …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. So they started to give money and funding to the leaders of the grassroots organizations, including Stand Up Michigan to help them get this done. They support a lot about what we do. 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. 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 together with us to help in those places to recruit 5,000 GOP election workers. Because shame on the GOP, it’s their fault that our election was stolen. It’s 100 percent their fault.

A Dangerous New Coalition

The other ballot campaigns also show clear signs of partnership. DeVos-backed Let MI Kids Learn announced that they were facing a shortage in signatures. In mid-March it joined forces with Stand Up Michigan and announced that they would be working together on all four petition drives.

In 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.

“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 several counter-campaigns have 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. Wang stated that the key to urging people read the 100-word summary at the top of each petition is to remind them. Contrary to what petition circulators might tell people on the streets, written summaries must have the approval of the state and 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 constitution amendment that would guarantee 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.”