The 2020 presidential election took place in one of the most unprecedented years in recent history, so it’s not surprising that voters had a lot of questions. As Michigan officials start looking ahead to the administration of future elections, they’re taking stock of what issues voters experienced across the state in November.
The Election Protection hotline, a national nonpartisan coalition that protects the right to vote, tracks the most common issues voters had in Michigan. The group experienced an increased number of calls compared to previous years, but fewer major voting issues.
The hotline partners with local experts to answer questions and address issues about the election and voting process. Michingan’s partners include the NAACP, Michigan Voices and Michigan ACLU, among others.
“Most of them are lawyers who answer the calls — they don’t provide legal advice or assistance but they are familiar with the laws,” Julie Houk, Managing Council of Election Protection at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, told BridgeDetroit.
Experts answer the more “straightforward” questions or help voters find out if they are registered to vote, but if there are more serious issues or specific problems that occur at a polling place, they attempt to reach out to the local clerk’s office to try to help resolve the issue.
“Our partners have developed relationships with many of the city and township clerks and are familiar with them so they are able to contact them to try and resolve the issues as they receive them,” Houk said.
Though the administration of the November election largely went smoothly, voter protection experts explained the most prevalent issues they saw this year.
The majority of calls were general voting questions, according to Houk, like the correct polling location or whether or not a voter was registered to vote.
There are a lot of complicated laws governing elections and they can be confusing both to voters and to poll workers, according to Tom Ivacko, executive director at the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.
“Some of the recent changes have added to the complexity and the need for voters to really do their homework,” Ivacko told BridgeDetroit.
Some voters called the hotline because they went to a polling place to register to vote only to realize it wasn’t the correct location to do that.
“A lot of voters still did not completely understand how same-day voter registration worked in Michigan,” Houk explained. “Voters were unclear of the fact that they had to go to their city or township clerk’s office for same-day registration and fill their ballot at the office.”
Houk said the hotline often receives calls from individuals who were previously incarcerated in Michigan about whether or not they can vote and the process to register. About 2,700 people return to Detroit annually from the Michigan Department of Corrections, according to the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development
As long as citizens are not currently serving a sentence in jail or prison, they can vote, according to the Michigan Secretary of State.
Detroit activist and author TaMuk Scruggs was previously incarcerated and made it a mission to inform those with criminal records of their voting rights. He works to make sure that individuals who were jailed on pending charges could vote absentee.
“I’ve been active letting folks know that they can in fact vote in every election that they are free from detainment from the Department of Corrections,” Scruggs told BridgeDetroit.
Voter ID laws
By law, Michigan voters can cast a ballot without a photo ID, as long as they sign an affidavit that states they do not have photo ID or they forgot to bring it to their polling location. However, in past cycles there has been some confusion over affidavits, according to Houk.
“This issue is a combination of a voter education piece but also a training piece for the people working at the polls in terms of allowing voters to use the affidavit process when an ID isn’t available,” said Houk.
The law leaves room for human error, and even when poll workers are trained to allow voters to cast their ballots without an ID, some decide not to. Jessy Jacob, an engineer for the City of Detroit who worked as a poll worker, said her supervisor told her a voter didn’t need a photo ID to vote but she asked for a driver’s license anyway for her “peace of mind,” according to her testimony before the Michigan House Oversight Committee on Dec. 2.
When State Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, asked Jacobs if she was aware that people in Michigan could vote without photo identification, she responded that if a voter didn’t have a driver’s license they could sign an affidavit but still had to show another form of ID “like a passport or something.”
“You’re confused,” LaGrand responded to Jacobs, since a voter in Michigan can vote with an affidavit and no photo ID.
Voter ID laws have been an ongoing challenge to smooth voting on Election Day, according to Ivacko.
“It is important for registered voters to know that even if they don’t have a picture ID with them on Election Day, they can simply fill out an affidavit stating they don’t have that ID, and they still get to vote, and their ballot goes in the tabulator like everyone else’s.”
Threats and intimidation issues
Across the country, there were concerns that there might be intimidation or interference with voting at the polls, but Houk was thankful Election Protection didn’t receive too many calls regarding intimidation.
“President Trump seemed to be signalling some of his followers to get out to polls in ways that could have intimidated minorities or immigrants,” Ivacko said, “but that doesn’t seem to have happened in any widespread ways.”
More than 300 Michiganders called to report intimidation and electioneering at their polling location and approximately 30 of those calls originated from Detroit and Wayne County. Most of the calls reported aggressive verbal attempts to vote for a particular party, but “fortunately there weren’t any serious issues of intimidation,” Houk said.
“I think there was a heightened level of concern, specifically in Michigan because of the activity that occurred prior to Election Day,” she said. “But it did not really play out that way on Election Day from what we observed.”
People who requested absentee ballots but didn’t get them in a timely manner — because of mail delays, slowdowns at the clerk’s office or other reasons — called the hotline to figure out how to receive their ballot. But once it was too close to the election, those issues became unresolvable and the voter was encouraged to vote at their polling place, if possible.
“There were very unique circumstances this election cycle because of COVID,” Houk explained. “I think the state overall did a very good job but there are individual instances where people did not get their ballots or had to vote in person. But if they’re sick or have COVID, that becomes an issue and they’re possibly prevented from voting.”
Unfortunately, there are always going to be some voters who can’t be helped for various reasons. But Houk said despite the increase in calls, few voters experienced serious issues.
“Overall it was a fairly good election from what we were able to observe,” Houk said.
This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.