Michigan is backward when it comes to helping citizens participate in democracy | Michigan Radio
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Michigan is backward when it comes to helping citizens participate in democracy

Jun 22, 2015

Last week I discussed a new bill that would make it easier for citizens to get absentee ballots in Michigan, a bill sponsored by a Republican state representative, Lisa Posthumus Lyons, and enthusiastically supported by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

She’s also a conservative Republican and Michigan’s chief elections official. The bill is scarcely radical; it would merely allow any voter who wants an absentee ballot to get one. Two-thirds of the states already allow what is called “no-excuse” absentee voting.

In fact, all those states also allow early voting, meaning that on certain days before the election, the polls are open to allow people to vote who already have made up their minds.

This both encourages turnout and reduces lines on Election Day.

Three states – Colorado, Washington and Oregon – require everyone to vote absentee. As it now stands, Michigan is definitely backward when it comes to helping citizens participate in democracy.

But unfortunately, Republican leaders in the Legislature have exceeded my worst expectations. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof made it very clear he has no interest in doing anything to help more people vote.

“They should be responsible enough to make sure they get to their own polling places,” he said. “I think that’s the least we can ask.” He also said he feared “fraud and abuse,” although there has been no evidence of that reported in any of the thirty-six states that are more voter-friendly than Michigan.

And State Senator Dave Robertson, a former insurance salesman from Grand Blanc, was, if anything, worse. Robertson is the chair of the Elections and Government Reforms Committee, and he made it clear that he will do everything he can to sabotage Lyons’ bill if it makes it to the senate.

He said no-fault absentee voting would unfairly handicap candidates because they wouldn't have enough time to reach those voting early.

Not only did he say he would oppose it, he said he wouldn’t even allow hearings to consider this, hearings in which he and his fellow senators could hear testimony about how open absentee balloting has worked in other states.

Why does he feel this way?

Well, Robertson was at first largely incoherent, called Election Day a “focal point” he didn’t want to diminish, but then gave a fantastically incredible reason. He said no-fault absentee voting would unfairly handicap candidates because they wouldn’t have enough time to reach those voting early.

If he really believes that, he may be the only person in the nation who thinks our campaigns are too short. The truth is that he and Meekhof don’t want to allow this because they are indeed afraid more people would vote. They know that higher voter turnout tends to favor Democratic candidates, which they are determined to prevent.

... it isn't politically acceptable to say they want to keep people from voting, so they make up hypocritical excuses instead.

But it isn’t politically acceptable to say they want to keep people from voting, so they make up hypocritical excuses instead. The fact is that no-excuse absentee voting is highly unlikely to change very much, especially in our heavily gerrymandered legislature.

And it is encouraging that two principled Republican women have had the integrity to come out in favor of doing what is right and helping more people vote.

It would be nice if they could be supported by a little citizen outrage against the men who want to prevent more people from participating in democracy.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.