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With an upcoming presidential election and ongoing pandemic, conversations on voter rights and registration are becoming increasingly salient in the U.S.. The U.S. has faced many voting registration challenges in the past with a lower voter turnout than most developed countries. Now, as the pandemic increases voting difficulty during an already heated election year, many fear that disadvantaged communities will continue to remain underrepresented in the 2020 vote, even as new systems are put in place.
Michigan, a state that has had issues with voting registration and rights in the past, is currently poised as a battleground state for the election, making issues of voter turnout more important than ever. In this case study we take a closer look at some of the challenges that voters face in Michigan and the steps that need to be taken to ensure a fair and free election for all.
In 2018, an independent, non-partisan investigation by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that Michigan is highly gerrymandered. During the redistricting process after the 2010 census, voting district boundaries were drawn in manipulative ways to favor certain political parties. The effects of redistricting have lasted four election cycles and have been affecting low-income, communities of color in particular.
Prompted by the independent investigation, Proposal 2 was passed in November, 2018 to combat gerrymandering. Instead of depending on the Michigan State Legislature to draw voting district boundaries, an independent redistricting commission of citizens has been given the power to determine these districts. The results of the independent redistricting commission will not be realized for this election cycle, taking effect in 2022. However, voters hope that by drawing members from all political parties, redistricting will be more fair under the new commission.
Voter registration remains a contentious issue in Michigan. In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Michigan for its voter roll purging practices in which election officials were required to remove voter registrations when their voter identification cards were returned as undeliverable by the post office. Although 5,500 voter registrations were restored at that time, many voters continue to face the risk of having their voter registration withdrawn. For example, voters may face challenges to their registration when they move to new in-state jurisdictions or have a city clerk deem their registration unqualified without receiving notice.
The formerly incarcerated are also not properly informed of their right to vote, according to a recent report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The report shows that this disproportionately affects communities of color. Pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds is also not currently allowed in Michigan which many other states have adopted across the country to allow for more accessible voter registration.
In 2018, the Secretary of State’s office developed an online voter registration system to help make registration easier for citizens. Proposal 3, passed in 2018, will also allow for voters to be automatically registered in the Secretary of State office whenever they get or upgrade a Michigan driving license after the age of 18. However, because Proposal 3 was enacted as recently as 2019, many people remain unregistered for this election cycle; it is still essential to both register to vote and check your voter registration before election day.
Voter registration rates in Michigan reflect racial disparities. According to a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, out of all eligible voters in Michigan only 76 percent of white, 67 percent of African American, 67.9 percent of Asian, and 49 percent of Hispanic are registered to vote. Knowledge of voter registration deadlines and ability to register have been thought to lead to these disparities in the past. For example, Michigan lacks translated ballots and registration materials for people with limited English proficiency despite having 270,000 people who are reported Spanish-speakers and 125,000 Arabic speakers. At polling stations themselves, poll challengers, or citizens who volunteer to stop voting fraud at polling places, have been more concentrated in predominantly Arab American communities across the state and noted to slow down the voting process in these areas.
Photo ID requirements in Michigan can also pose a barrier to voter participation. Michigan currently has a “non-strict” photo ID requirement meaning that either a photo ID must be provided or an affidavit filled out. However, poll workers often aren’t aware that they can provide an affidavit in lieu of voters not having a photo ID and have refused to provide affidavits in the past. Because of photo ID requirement, transgender and gender non-conforming voters face difficulties, in particular, as their photo IDs sometimes do not match their current gender, name or picture.
Recently enacted Proposal 3 amended the state constitution to permit same-day voter registration, which may help diminish registration hurdles for communities of color. In a recent report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the commission recommended adding a Middle Eastern and North African demographic category to the U.S. census as well to allow for better Arab American representation in drawing voting district boundaries and diverting resources to polling stations in these areas. The commission also recommended having a gender neutral option on photo IDs and using the Help America Vote fund to help provide translated ballots and updated voting materials at polling stations.
Voters With Disabilities
Voters with disabilities can face many difficulties on election day including a lack of physical access to polling places and polling equipment, appropriate parking structures, a lack of privacy while voting, and poor poll worker cultural competency and technical knowledge on how to address their needs.
In a recent, groundbreaking lawsuit, Michigan voters won the right to have accessible absentee ballots for the blind. Blind voters can now fill out absentee ballots electronically using their own assistive technology. Overall, however, much more awareness and progress is required to fully meet the needs of voters with disabilities across the state.
“Voting Rights and Access in Michigan” by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights