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A Thousand Cuts: Democracy Under Attack

Black Voters Strike Back

In Michigan, those most affected by voting restrictions target DTE Energy and other corporations.




Protesters at a Defend Black Voters Coalition rally in downtown Detroit on October 31.

Cameron Gray moves on foot with ease through a Black working class neighborhood in Detroit. The 25-year-old knows these westside blocks, the neighborhood where he went to middle school.

He is going porch to porch encouraging people to vote, while asking them to think about what the utility that bills them, DTE Energy, is doing with their money.

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Gray is dressed in black jeans, pullover, knit cap and sneakers. He’s tall and skinny and flows with as little friction as possible while trying to get the word out about a grassroots campaign harnessing multiple teams of door-knockers.

Gray is part of a statewide alliance, the Defend Black Voters Coalition, that is pressuring corporations to stop funding lawmakers who would make it harder for Michiganders to vote. They have asked local corporations including GM, Delta Dental and DTE to sign a pledge that they will no longer support superPACs or committees that funnel donations to any state legislator “who supports voter suppression bills.”

By asking the state for a steep rate hike, DTE has presented activists an opportunity to focus public outrage at a moment when the utility is hoping for public support. The coalition seeks to leverage consumer resentment to bring attention to corporate funding of anti-democratic politicians.

The rise in election denialism and the proliferation of election suppression legislation has given rise to corporate accountability movements across the country. The coalition, though, is one of the few Black-run groups that are pressuring corporations to enlist in the fight against voter suppression — that is, a movement composed of those most affected by voter suppression.

Michigan is a frontline state no Democrat can afford to lose, and the Black vote has been crucial to Democratic success.

“What’s going on, boss, how are you doing?” Gray says to a man. “We’re just walking the neighborhood and talking to people about DTE and how they’re trying to raise people’s bills and all of that.”

Mentioning DTE, the Detroit-based gas and electricity utility, is all it takes to get many a local’s attention. On Sept. 1, a huge storm pushed through Southeast Michigan and left more than 98,000 DTE customers without power for three days.

A privately owned utility, DTE is regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission, and it has recently asked the commission to sign off on an 8.8% rate increase. The MPSC will issue a ruling by Nov. 21.

DTE did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In an August email to The Detroit News, the utility said that it hadn’t raised rates in three years and its proposed rate increase was below the national average. It said the additional money generated would fund a “grid of the future” and community solar projects in the region.

The man at the door tells Gray he is planning to vote and he promises to check out the website to which Gray is steering him. “That’s all I need, boss. You have a good one!”

*   *   *

Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in Michigan by 154,188 votes, just 3% of the state’s vote; in the same election, Democrat Gary Peters eked out a victory in one of the tightest Senate races in the country, preserving the Democratic majority. Michigan is a frontline state no Democrat can afford to lose, and the Black vote has been crucial to Democratic success.

Following the 2020 election, many state legislators proposed new laws that would help erase that margin of victory by making it harder for Michiganders to vote. Meanwhile, election deniers abound on the state ballot this November. Tudor Dixon, the Republican candidate for governor, said as recently as May that Trump actually won the state in 2020; having won the primary, she now says the truth remains unclear and will be investigated further if she wins. (Another Republican candidate for governor who lost the primary has been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.) 

The Republican candidate for attorney general, the Trump-backed Matthew DePerno, is currently under investigation by a special prosecutor for allegedly plotting to tamper with voting equipment in three counties, part of an attempt to prove that the 2020 election was “stolen.” And Kristina Karamo, Michigan’s Trump-backed candidate for secretary of state, says she has “major questions” about Joe Biden’s victory, and charged on the campaign trail that the current Democratic secretary of state will “keep dead people on the voter rolls” and is “intentionally trying to corrupt the election system.”

Then there are three Republican candidates for Congress who say they do not believe Biden won in Michigan, and three more who have expressed doubts about the election’s legitimacy.

DTE Energy and its affiliates have donated $318,145 to legislators supporting voter suppression legislation since 2016, according to the Defend Black Voters Coalition.

Against this backdrop, six social justice organizations formed the Defend Black Voters Coalition. They have staged protests in front of pure Michigan backdrops like the Spirit of Detroit statue downtown and at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference of state leaders on picturesque Mackinac Island. They have called for leading Michigan corporations including Ford, General Motors, DTE and Consumers Energy to stop contributing to politicians “who are working to make it harder for Black people in Michigan to cast ballots.” And they have mounted a door-to-door canvas that links the attack on voting rights to an issue that’s often more top of mind, people’s utility bills.

In this group of political contributors, the utility DTE has a rarefied perch. According to a report by the Energy and Policy Institute, all but 10 of Michigan’s 148 state senators and representatives have received money from DTE. DTE and its affiliates have donated $318,145 to legislators supporting voter suppression legislation since 2016, according to the coalition. 

State officials are expected to decide this month on the rate hike proposed by DTE. 

“DTE and me, we are not friends right now,” says Cindy Reese, a 74-year-old longtime employee of the city of Birmingham. Reese is a member of MOSES Action, a community empowerment and leadership-building organization.

When the storm hit Detroit in September, Reese said her house lost power for several days. Her husband used to open the garage door for her, but he died of COVID in 2020, the electric door opener didn’t work, and her car was stuck in the garage. Meanwhile she tossed out food that went bad in her refrigerator.

*   *   *

She has gone to Lansing to protest the Republican-dominated Legislature’s efforts to limit access to absentee ballots and the places where absentee ballots are cast. Lawmakers sought to require a picture ID to vote, which is part of a strategy to limit access to the polls, according to voting rights experts. When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the legislation, Republicans crafted an initiative intending to put a range of voting restrictions before a statewide vote.

In the end, Republicans didn’t turn in the signatures they collected in time to qualify for the November election.

Defend Black Voters and their allies now have the opportunity to play offense. There’s a competing initiative on the November ballot that would forbid efforts with “the intent or effect of denying, abridging, interfering with, or unreasonably burdening the fundamental right to vote.” This effort would embed these voter protections in the state Constitution. So now forces are lined up on both sides of this initiative, Proposition 2: Opponents charge that the voting process is endangered without more constraints, while supporters declare that more voting leads to more democracy.

“Voting rights is not a political issue. It’s become politicized, but it’s not a political issue.”

~ Eboni Taylor, Michigan executive director, Mothering Justice

DTE is not the coalition’s only target, and canvassing is not its only strategy. Defend Black Voters is finding other ways to turn up the heat on corporations that support candidates who want to place restrictions on voting. On a late September afternoon, coalition member Eboni Taylor is speaking at a University of Michigan Board of Regents meeting in Ann Arbor. Taylor, Michigan executive director of Mothering Justice, an organization focusing on issues affecting mothers of color, is asking the university to pressure two vendors, Michigan Blue Cross Blue Shield and Delta Dental, to stop donating to homegrown vote suppressors. 

Taylor read her statement, and then was rejected by regents who said they heartily supported the work of the coalition but could not support it today. To compel a vendor to stop funding those who make voting harder, they said, would impinge on their right to free political expression.

Afterwards, Taylor sounded stunned. “Voting rights is not a political issue,” she said. “It’s become politicized, but it’s not a political issue. Everyone should have equal access to their God-given right to vote.”

Whatever happens in this month’s election, members of the Defend Black Voters Coalition say they are not going to fade away and are in it for the long haul; state Republicans have indicated they plan to continue introducing legislation to scrutinize voter registration and make voting more arduous.

Cindy Reese says sometimes she thinks of her parents, who came to Detroit from the tiny town of Boligee, Alabama, around 1945. They couldn’t vote in Alabama. But in Michigan, Reese says, “As Black folks, we were glad to vote.” 

If her parents were around today, says Reese, ​​“I think they would be right out there with me explaining to people what people went through to give us the right to vote. We are not going to let anybody take that away — not after all they went through to give us that right to vote.”

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