Changes to Michigan’s Rickety Voting System Are Here: What You Need to Know

Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, addresses citizens at Town Hall on Voter Rights

Voters across Michigan transformed the state’s election machinery last year when they voted overwhelmingly for Proposal 3, sweeping in a set of deep changes to how elections are done in the state.

As the sprint towards the 2020 elections continues – at a pace that seems to quicken daily – voters may have questions about these changes and the impact they’ll likely have on the state’s future.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, as the state’s chief elections officer, is responsible for helping people make sense of the confusing landscape before them. Last week, Oak Park Library became the stage for one of these guides through the state’s election machinery.

Benson teed off by thanking voters “for changing our constitution, for making it truly a new day for democracy in our state” while also cautioning that “the work is not done.” That charge is taking Benson and her office before town hall audiences across the state, with stops in communities large and small, to shed light on the basic features of the state’s renovated voting system.

The United States Lags Far Behind Other Democracies

Compared to peer nations, U.S. elections and the procedures that guide them are notoriously janky. Instead of voting on the weekend or making election days holidays, we cannonball it into Tuesday, as if the goal was to maximally inconvenience everyone. This is especially true for those who can’t afford to lose precious work hours and risk the consequences of a day spent exercising basic democratic rights.

We also refuse to do obviously sane things like adopt ranked-choice voting, automatic and same-day voter registration, and no-reason absentee voting.

The outcome is predictable: internationally embarrassing rates of voter participation. This is no doubt worsened by the fact that the country’s political institutions – which researchers have repeatedly shownserve the wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else – are deeply distrusted by the general public.

 

Prop 3 Expanded Access and Opened New Pathways to Voting 

But many aspects of this humiliating status quo changed last fall, when over two-thirds of Michigan voters said yes to Proposal 3. At the Oak Park town hall, Secretary Benson highlighted three of the most seismic shifts in the way voters’ relationships to elections have changed.

For starters, Michigan now joins 17 other states with same-day voter registration. This is pretty straightforward: eligible voters, with proof of residency, can now register at any point up to and including election day, without slamming into some arbitrarily-drawn deadline that prevents them from participating in elections.

“If you’re eligible to vote in the state of Michigan,” Benson stated plainly, “you can vote. Period.”

Michigan also follows behind 16 states and the District of Columbia in bringing automatic voter registration to the state. That is, unless they opt-out, citizens will now be automatically registered to vote when they come into contact with the Secretary of State’s office. For champions of the policy, this does a very sensible thing: it shifts the responsibility for registering millions of individual citizens from those individuals themselves to the state (with its vast machinery and resources) that requires them to register in the first place.

The last thing on Benson’s highlight list was the adoption of no-reason absentee voting, which 27 other states plus the District of Columbia currently have. This means that you no longer have to offer a state-approved excuse for why you can’t vote in-person on election day and thus need to vote by mail. Instead, all you have to do is request an absentee ballot and voila, it’s yours.

Prop 3 also included a chain of other reforms aimed at strengthening election security, transparency, and accuracy: from protecting ballot secrecy and guaranteeing Michigan voters the right to cast a straight-party ticket to establish a mandatory auditing process for election results.

These changes and their impact should be watched closely in places like Detroit, where poor and working-class communities of color have seen local democracy either crumble slowly through decades of lopsided wealth and resource distribution or obliterated under policies like emergency management. Though not radical by any stretch of the imagination, these changes slightly improve their ability to participate in who is doing the decision-making, if not in the actual process of decision-making itself.

Benson went on to highlight that these renovations to the state’s rickety election system would be “the first step of really changing the landscape” of elections by making them a more “representative, inclusive, and fair and accurate reflection of the will of all voters in our state.”

The National Debate over Voting Rights 

Though there wasn’t any fierce opposition, conservative skeptics still argued what they have whenever a participation-enhancing idea is floated, namely that it “could open the door to registration fraud.”

The first thing to know is that charges of fraud are a complete crock. The second thing to know is that those who make that charge almost certainly don’t care. Federal courts have ruled that certain voter ID laws, like North Carolina’s Jim Crow throwback, were just a ploy to weaken voting power in communities of color by targeting “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” At last count, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 25 states have adopted restrictive voting laws since 2010. We should expect the myth, and its voter-banishing offspring, to persist.

But there’s also pressure in the opposite direction. As discussed, Michigan joins a sizable roster of other states, who themselves have been forced to act thanks to organized popular pressure, to increase and widen the pathways for people to participate in elections. They do so on a simple principle: that everyone has a right to play a role in the decisions that shape their lives. And voting, which should be just one of many tools available to them, also shouldn’t be a total nightmare.

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