Since 1963 when the current Michigan Constitution was adopted by the electorate, there have been 74 proposed amendments to the state’s governing document. Thirty- one of those amendments made it to the ballot by citizen petition, and 10 of those were approved at the ballot box.
Come this November, we could be looking at about five ballot issues as a result of petition efforts, a few of them constitutional changes.
One of those, which I heard about a year ago in conversation with a friend in Birmingham, would enshrine in the Michigan Constitution a number of changes to how voting is handled in this state. The intent is to open up the voting process so that it is more readily accessible for citizens and hopefully increase voter turnout.
While still awaiting approval of petition language in Lansing before gatherers begin circulating petitions, this effort will fly under the banner of Promote The Vote. An abbreviated recap of what this constitutional amendment would do is preserve the right to a straight party vote option on partisan elections; provide for automatic registration to vote when dealing with the Michigan Secretary of State office; allow for same day registration/voting and early voting; and provide for what’s known as “no reason” absentee balloting.
Frankly I had my reservations about some elements of this proposal, so I took the time to discuss the proposal with a couple of key municipal clerks in Oakland County who I hold in esteem, and did considerable research to see how other states fared after making similar changes years – and in some cases decades – ago.
Let’s first look at the two issues that have been on my radar for years – “no reason” absentee voting and straight party voting.
“No reason” absentee voting means just that. You call or visit your local clerk’s office and ask for an application for an absentee ballot. You can cast your ballot while you are there or just mail the ballot to the local clerk. Under current election regulations you must indicate that you will not be in your voting precinct on election day; are 60 years of age or older; have a physical disability; have religious objections; are in jail; or will be working as a precinct inspector – regulations that seemed archaic to me for the last 30 years as I voted absentee on a majority of elections.
The proposed amendment change pushed by Promote the Vote would extend the right to an absentee ballot without having to give a reason.Twenty seven other states have allowed “no reason” absentee voting.
There have been a number of attempts in the state legislature to enact an election law change that would provide for “no reason” absentee ballots. Most recently, Michigan Secretary of State (and Oakland native) Ruth Johnson sponsored legislation in June of 2015 that would have done just that, but GOP lawmakers who control the flow of bills in the legislature were dismissive in the Senate. Among those opposing even allowing lawmakers to vote on the issue was Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhoff, a Republican from West Olive, who we can generally count on to oppose anything progressive.
In the House, and eventually the Senate, they did approve Johnson’s proposal but tied it to a bill that eliminated straight party voting, which is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. Oh, I almost forgot – one Republican in the House also introduced legislation that would have restricted the hours local clerks could keep their offices open on weekends to issue ballots and and process absentee ballots. (I am not making that up.)
That brings us to the second personal concern – the ban on straight party voting in this state – the same one voters twice at the polls voted to keep but lawmakers (mostly Republicans) found a way to circumvent the wishes of their constituents.
The Republican majority in both the House and Senate say this will force people to learn more about candidates running for office, rather than just selecting to vote for all candidates running from the same political party. Really. So even if lawmakers win out in federal court on this issue, a constitutional change would mean straight ticket voting is here to stay.
As to the other critical changes proposed by Promote The Vote – same day registration/voting and early voting, I understand the concerns I heard from local clerks.
On same day registration/voting, for one, there would likely have to be an upgrade in some equipment and technology to allow for someone to walk in to a voting precinct or a specified place aside from the precinct and ask to register on voting day because in most communities the laptops used by election workers are not networked and there’s no VPN internet access to check voting rolls at the state or federal level to make sure a person has not voted already. Most likely there would be a need for some extra labor to conduct an election. This could pose a problem in some rural areas where high speed web access is not available and election staffs may only be a couple of people, but I would think – like with other laws in this state – we can consider adjusting requirements for rural communities or smaller population municipalities.
Research shows that there are 15 states and Washington D.C. with same day registration/voting, and seven of those states have been successfully doing so without networked laptops for poll workers and access to recommended VPN servers or high speed internet. A number of studies have shown that “same day” increases voter turnout an average of five percent. Studies have also shown no conclusive evidence that partisan outcomes were impacted and that certain races or economic classes will benefit more than others.
There is also legitimate concern about not being able to mail newly registered voters for assurance that they actually reside where they say they do. But a number of states have introduced provisional ballots that are not counted in vote totals until the normal verification procedures can be followed.
On the issue of early voting, in 1978 there were no states offering this option. By 2008, 31 states offered early voting. Prior to my research, I was under the impression that early voting would prove to be of benefit to inner city areas which is why Republicans opposed to this idea have labeled it a boon for Democrats. But the facts don’t support this characterization. And for those that worry about fraud, we have little fraud in Michigan voting now, contrary to what you might hear from lawmakers more interested in suppressing votes. With the correct structure on the proposed changes, that situation won’t change in the future.
Lastly, on the issue of automatic voter registration when you are dealing with an office of the Secretary of State, I think it’s a no brainer. Other states have found this to be a positive change and 14 states now pre-register 16 and 17 year-olds prior to turning 18. It’s time we caught up.
Yes, there will be some period of adjustment if Promote The Vote is successful in getting this on the ballot and passed by voters. And there may well be some added expense in terms of upgrading equipment and added labor. But overall, this proposal would seem to be relatively solid and worth your support if you have the opportunity to sign a petition. If we can make voting easier and more convenient, who knows, we may be able to increase voter participation in the future.