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Michigan: The Latest Front in the Voter ID Wars

There’s already a way for voters to prove who they are at the polls. But this week, the state Senate will consider a strict law that would make it harder for many to vote.

  • Erin Kelley
December 12, 2016

Michigan’s vote recount drew headlines and revealed a multiplicity of problems, including voting machine failures, inadequate recount laws, and poorly trained election workers. Instead of addressing these real problems, state legislators are about to make things worse.

This week, the state Senate will consider a strict photo ID bill, which the House passed last week. If approved, the measure would prevent citizens without a designated type of photo ID from casting a ballot that counts — unless they make a second trip to a government office and provide additional documents. This would make it harder for more than 18,000 registered voters who cast ballots this year to do so again in the future.

To be clear, Michigan already has a law to prevent someone from pretending to be someone else at the polls. Everyone who votes in person is asked to show a photo ID. And anyone who does not have one has to sign a legal form where they must confirm, under penalty of perjury, that they are who they say they are and that they do not have ID with them. All of these forms are kept as records of who voted. After each election, Michigan officials conduct audits, during which they re-examine the forms and check them against voter registration records.

Michigan legislators’ push to eliminate this alternative option is sharply at odds with recent court rulings, which have been increasingly skeptical of strict photo ID laws. A few years ago, North Dakota politicians tried a maneuver similar to what Michigan is doing now, but a federal court blocked the law for this November because it made it harder for Native Americans to vote. Federal courts also found problems with the strict photo ID law in Wisconsin.

In late July, the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, known as one of the country’s most conservative appellate courts, ruled that Texas’s strict photo ID law illegally discriminates against minority voters. As a result, the state was ordered to offer an alternative, and the trial court imposed a system that allowed voters without the specified types of photo ID to cast a ballot after signing a legal document, under penalty of perjury, saying they had a “reasonable impediment” to getting an ID. South Carolina has a similar solution in place. Both of these systems look a lot like the system Michigan already has.

The bill moving through Michigan’s legislature is clearly out-of-step with these rulings. In addition to eliminating the state’s current option, it also narrows the scope of acceptable IDs. Voters without one of these photo IDs will be required to cast a provisional ballot — which counts only if that voter can make a trip to their city or town clerk within 10 days. For many, such a trip will be infeasible for many of the same reasons — from inflexible work hours to lack of transportation — that prevented them from getting a photo ID in the first place. Those voters who do not have photo ID but are able to make the trip still face hurdles: they must 1) present documentation of their current address, and 2) sign a form saying they either have a religious objection to being photographed, or are “indigent” and attempted to — but could not — obtain a photo ID without paying a fee. The single exception — for voters living in facilities with at least 150 residents who are 62 or older — is extraordinarily narrow.

Anyone wondering why Michigan legislators are focusing their energies on enacting a strict photo ID law in the midst of all the problems highlighted by the recount isn’t alone. The bill’s supporters have justified it as a means to prevent voter fraud. But this is hardly persuasive, given that study after study has shown that in-person voter fraud — the only type of fraud ostensibly prevented by a strict photo ID law — is vanishingly rare. And the courts agree: The decisions from Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin all found that the threat of in-person voter fraud is extremely low.

While there is no evidence that in-person voter fraud is a pressing concern, photo ID laws pose very real barriers to voters. The numbers are staggering. In Texas, an estimated 1.2 million eligible citizens — including over 600,000 registered voters — do not have any of the IDs required under the state’s restrictive law. In Wisconsin, approximately 300,000 registered voters do not have an acceptable ID. And, the most recent court rulings affirm what research had already shown: Those most affected by ID laws are black and Latino voters, and voters from high-poverty areas.

No eligible citizen should lose their right to vote simply because they don’t have a photo ID. If Michigan’s legislators are truly interested in ensuring their elections are secure and free of misconduct, there is a lot they can do. A good start, in light of recent news, would be to update the state’s voting machinesmodernize voter registration, and improve poll worker training.

Legislators should be focusing on these real, pressing issues, not dealing with imagined fraud by imposing more onerous ID requirements that risk disenfranchising many eligible Michigan voters.

Update: The Senate Majority Leader announced Dec. 13 the chamber would not take up the photo ID bill before this year’s legislative session ends.