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Michigan: Following Florida’s Lead on Voter Registration Barriers?

State lawmakers are pushing a bill that puts unnecessary restrictions on helping others register to vote.

  • Jonathan Brater
November 8, 2011

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, with the help of members of the State Legislature, is seeking legislation that would give the state one of the most regressive laws in the nation when it comes to helping others register to vote.

S.B. 754, sponsored by State Senator Mark Jansen, is part of an 11-bill legislative package unveiled by Secretary Johnson last month called the Secure and Fair Elections Initiative (“SAFE”). The bill’s provisions, however, are neither safe nor fair, at least if one believes it should be possible to help another register to vote without risking criminal prosecution for failure to comply with a labyrinth of confusing and burdensome rules.

S.B. 754 contains a number of unreasonable and unnecessary restrictions on the ability of civic-minded individuals and organizations to help others register to vote. First, before registering anyone to vote, a “third-party voter registration organization” must register with the state, providing a name, address, and the name of a registered agent (for service of legal process) in the state. This information must be “promptly” updated whenever it changes, although “promptly” is not defined. For an individual, the registration procedure alone would be burdensome and confusing. For example, does an individual need a “registered agent” in order to help people register to vote? The bill is not clear.

Next, the individual (or a representative of an organization) must attend a state-run training program. The bill does not require that programs be run regularly or at convenient locations. After that, she must sign a statement advising the individual of applicable penalties for “false registration of electors.” Since false registration carries criminal penalties, this will require voter registration volunteers to sign documents scaring them with criminal prosecution before they can register voters. This will likely intimidate many from registering voters.

Once an individual or organization is finally allowed to register voters, things get even more difficult. The bill states that “third-party voter registration organizations” become “fiduciaries” of those whom they register to vote, and are required to “promptly” submit every completed registration form to the state.  Again, “promptly” is not defined — no small concern since violating the law could trigger criminal penalties. Furthermore, if the voter registration application is collected within seven days of the registration deadline (when a large percentage of applications are submitted), the application must be submitted the next business day. This requirement will spook individuals who do not have a car, rely on others to travel, or are just plain busy, from registering voters. Organizations may be unable to ensure each of their representatives get all forms back to them, or to the state, within one day.

If the bill is passed, the effect on voter registration could be dramatic. Anyone who collected a voter registration application from another without first signing up with the state could be subject to criminal prosecution — even a parent helping her child. Elderly individuals who register others in residential care facilities could be considered criminals if they cannot get a ride to a Supervisor of Elections’ office the day after registering their neighbors. And organizations such as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, which have registered millions of American citizens to vote, may have a hard time encouraging others to engage in this core democratic activity. The effects, of course, will fall hardest on young, low-income, and minority voters, who register through voter registration organizations at much higher rates than other citizens.

The suppressive effect of such legislation on voter registration is not theoretical. It has already occurred in Florida, where a law similar to the one proposed by Secretary Johnson was enacted last year. Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, which have spotless reputations and no record of fraud, have been forced to suspend their voter registration drives because of fear they will not be able to comply with the law’s requirements. Now, two teachers may be facing huge fines because they registered their students to vote, not knowing they were required to first register as a “third-party voter registration organization.”

Michigan is only the latest front in the nationwide war on voting. As a recent Brennan Center report shows, 21 new laws and executive actions in more than a dozen states will make it significantly harder for eligible citizens to register and vote. At least 44 bills are still pending, and these bills include provisions requiring photo ID and proof of citizenship to vote, cutting back on early and absentee voting, banning the restoration of voting rights to those with felony convictions, and, as here, making it harder to register to vote. All told, they could prevent up to 5 million Americans from voting. Almost uniformly, proponents of the legislation justify the bills with unsupported and generalized references to “voter fraud,” as Secretary Johnson has here. It is unclear, however, what this bill will do to prevent voter registration fraud, and it is virtually certain to suppress voter registration and participation.

The so-called “Secure and Fair Elections” initiative is unfair for voters and unsafe for democracy. Let’s hope Michigan rejects this latest attempt at voter suppression.