Guest column: Voting reform boosts access, security

By Ruth Johnson/Michigan secretary of state

Critics and pundits ("Right to vote is under attack," Dec. 15) would have you think that any move to review and make common sense adjustments to our current elections system is a veiled attempt at destroying our democratic process. The fact is that ensuring integrity in our elections system is our duty and will only serve to increase confidence – and participation.

That’s why I’m working with our legislative partners and Michigan’s clerks on a "Secure and Fair Elections," or SAFE, initiative.

The SAFE proposal would:

*Increase convenience and access through no-reason absentee voting.

* Require training for third parties who register voters.

* Encourage participation through outreach efforts for legitimate voters.

* Protect the rights of legitimate voters by ensuring that those not qualified to vote can’t cast ballots.

No-reason absentee voting would allow voters to pick up an absentee ballot for any reason. All they’d have to do is follow the same requirements as if they’d gone to the polls on Election Day: either show ID or sign a brief affidavit of identity stating they’re not in possession of a photo ID. Their ballots are included with all others and counted on Election Day.

Voters already eligible to obtain an absentee ballot through the mail – including people who are disabled, age 60 and older, in the military or out of town on Election Day – would continue to have that option.

This proposal accommodates voters who may not have a photo ID while also increasing access and convenience, all while ensuring consistency withMichigan’s existing ID laws.

The SAFE initiative also calls for voter registration organizations to register with the Department of State, receive free training and promptly turn around registrations to the state to protect the people the organizations set out to help. New voters will go to the polls with confidence that their registrations made it in on time and were filled out correctly.

In the same spirit of convenience and access, organizations could send one representative to get training from county clerks locally then train other members back in their hometowns. We’re also looking at ways to provide training remotely, such as through the web.

Our goal for this training is also to fight voter registration irregularities. In one example from 2008, a single Oakland County community reported that of 3,000 voter registrations it received from a third-party voter-registration organization, fewer than 50 were valid new registrations. Training on the front end of the elections process could help avoid similar problems in the future.

As Michigan’s chief elections officer, I strongly believe that we must continue our efforts to welcome new, legitimate voters to the process. In addition to sending all 18-year-olds a postcard reminding them to register, we have set up voter registration drives at local colleges and universities, and now allow residents who move to update their address online at Secretary of State Office branch staff also routinely ask ID and driver’s license customers if they would like to register.

And to make sure they are able to cast their votes with confidence, we are addressing vulnerabilities in our elections system. A Pew Center on the States report found that Michigan had an impossible 102.5 percent of its eligible voting population registered to vote in 2008. That just doesn’t add up, and must be addressed.

Some people on our state’s Qualified Voter Files aren’t “qualified” at all – they’re dead, they’ve moved out of state or they’re not U.S. citizens. Under the SAFE initiative this year, we’ve verified and removed the names of 30,000 deceased registered voters from the rolls and are confirming another 20,000.

The SAFE initiative finds a balance between expanding access for all eligible voters, creating more accountability and addressing vulnerabilities in our elections system. It deserves broad support.

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Thomas W. Donnelly
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 9:35am
Since a voter needs to be eighteen and registered for at least thirty days, why not extend your voter outreach to high school seniors prior to their graduation? Many turn eighteen in their senior year or shortly after high school graduation. The process of registration for voting should be a component of political science.Add a website to walk high schoolers through the process of registration. Here's something to gnaw on:On your eighteenth birthday, you are actually beginning your nineteenth year.So technically,one should be able to vote on the day before the eighteenth birthday, when one has achieved the passage of eighteen full years. This difference could allow some voters to participate in their first election one day earlier. High schoolers need to develop a sense of investment in their rights as voters and their duties as taxpayers. Thank you for your outreach efforts.
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 11:18am
And how many high school students are studying the issues, the candidates and their platforms? Just because you are able to vote doesn't mean that you can cast an informed vote. Most high schoolers will vote their parents party line and so we see parents getting more than one vote on an issue. School, fire protection, and road millages need insight from those footing the bill, not those not yet in the workplace, if there will be a workplace for our young people. Historically, most adult property owners don't explore the judges running for office, school board candidates or the university trustees. How can we expect high school students to select candidates for these positions? It may seem un American that I don't support encouraging high school voter registration, but maybe common sense isn't so common.
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 11:54am
I'm not so worried about having too many people vote, as having our votes counted correctly. Remember, Florida in 2000 didn't happen because the voter lists were wrong, but because the election officials and booths weren't working. Please focus your efforts on getting those votes counted correctly - that's the real issue. I do applaud the effort on no-reason absentee voting, would be a great way to increase participation. Shaking me down to get a registration card - not so much.
Mike R
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 1:06pm
I likewise applaud the "no reason absentee voting" initiative. But I am skeptical when Ms. Johnson, a party-line Republican, tells us that "people who are disabled, age 60 and older, in the military or out of town on Election Day" are automatically qualified to vote without presenting proof of their status, yet those who actually come to the SOS office are suspect. Those over 60 or in the military are statistically far more likely to vote for Republicans or conservative issues than for Democrats or liberal/progressive issues. The same is likely true of people traveling on Election Day, since they're likely to be business people or those able to afford leisure travel. I see no distinction between the two categories of absentee voters, and I see this as just another effort by conservatives to suppress the progressive vote.
Tue, 12/20/2011 - 7:45pm
Third party voter registration organizations are a problem in that they can be a source of fraudulent/invalid registrations. Why not have a person at each branch make home visits with a digital camera. If the person does not have a driver's license give them a State ID for free. Just allow third party voter registration organizations drive people to secretary of state branch offices to register to vote and get a free state ID. Change the rule of age 65 and older to get a free state ID. Reach out to potential voters to help clean up the system.
Wed, 12/21/2011 - 1:58pm
Smoke & mirrors--the bills currently pending on the Senate floor add a requirement that anyone who currently is eligible to get an absentee ballot but goes to the clerk's office to get it must show ID--or sign an affidavit and then their ballot will be treated as "challenged"--even though they've signed the absentee ballot application just as they would if they sent it in by mail. This is NOT "no reason" absentee but actually making the current absentee ballot access more restrictive. And since anyone can get a voter registration form off the Sec. of State website and fill it out and mail it themselves, what training is it that's required.
William Harris
Thu, 12/22/2011 - 12:34pm
Few would doubt that registration campaigns would benefit from more training, but really, the complaint that a drive only found 50 new voters and so we must restrict drives? The logic apparently is that it's too much work for the clerks -- hardly the stuff of getting people to vote. The associated threat of criminal prosecution for failure to meet registration drive standards seems more to do with intimidation than with any increase in fraud. And while I suppose the State could use a little extra spending cash, this seems a poor way to go about it. For all the pious invocation of "safety" in the ballot, the clear intent of Secretary Johnson and her legislative allies is to restrict the vote. This is a dismal betrayal of the office.
T. Scott Galloway
Sat, 12/24/2011 - 10:11am
Who cares if the SoS makes it marginally easier to cast your vote when your vote isn't going to be respected.Democracy in Michigan is only available so long as the Republic Party allows it. The GOP power grab in Oakland County and EFM legislation has made it clear that voting doesn't matter any more.