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Analysis

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.