The citizenship check box that many voters saw on Michigan voting forms for the first time in the August primary resulted in confusion and controversy. Election workers weren't sure whether voters were required to fill it out. In some cases, noncompliant voters were turned away. So were a couple of noncitizens preparing to cast ballots, apparently unaware that it was illegal.
The boxes will not be back for the Nov. 6 controversy. In early October, a federal judge blocked Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s bid to include the box again for the general election.
So ends that controversy, for now.
Still, Michigan voters need to be careful or they may have other surprises in store: your polling place may have changed; your driver's license may be electronically swiped; and if you're a first-time voter, your application for an absentee ballot may be denied.
Michigan's voting requirements are, relatively speaking, same-old, same-old, compared to other Republican-dominated state governments that passed new laws to toughen photo ID requirements, curtail voter registration drives and narrowing early voting periods.
"Michigan certainly doesn't have the most restrictive laws. Some of the really bad voter ID laws we've seen in places like Texas and Wisconsin, those laws have not been passed in Michigan," said Jonathan Brater, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting laws across the country. "Michigan deserves credit for not being too much a part of this wave of suppressive laws."
Nonetheless, Michigan has stayed on the sidelines in recent years while other states have made it easier to register and more convenient to vote through such initiatives as online registration, early voting and convenience absentee voting.
"It's frustrating because Michigan historically was a leader for how we ran elections," said Jocelyn Benson, an election law expert who unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state as a Democrat in 2010. "We have really fallen behind other states, in part because our elections have not kept up with technological advancement."
Even with Michigan voting laws relatively stable, voters could find themselves confused or tripped up in other ways -- if they're not careful:
Electronic pollbooks: Poll workers in many precincts have begun electronically swiping driver's licenses as voters are marked off voting lists. It's not to check whether you've got an unpaid ticket or are on a terrorist watch list. The swipe gives workers immediate access to a voter's registration record on their laptops.
The Michigan Election Coalition received numerous calls from voters concerned about it on its election protection hotline during the August primary.
"It's unnerving," Benson said. "Electronic pollbooks are designed to reduce errors, like dead people voting or, oftentimes, when poll workers accidentally cross someone's name off. If it works well, it would solve a lot of the inaccuracy problems in our voter file. The problem is there has not been enough education and awareness."
Although election workers won't necessarily tell you, the scan is optional. Election workers will type in your name, if you prefer.
Photo IDs: Election officials will ask to see your driver's license or photo ID, but if you don't have one, you can still cast a ballot. You will have to sign an affidavit asserting that you are who you say you are and that you don't have photo ID. Legislators in some states, such as Pennsylvania, passed more restrictive laws this year requiring the photo ID. (The Pennsylvania requirement was subsequently blocked by a judge for the Nov. 6 election.)
Minority voters are far less likely to have photo ID, and critics say it amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax if there are costs associated with getting them. Lawsuits are pending in several states.
Polling places: You may be in a different precinct at a different polling place. Precincts were reconfigured after the 2010 Census and subsequent redistricting. You should have been notified of the change, but you can check with your local clerk. The Secretary of State's website can confirm that you are registered, identify your precinct and polling place, and show you a sample ballot. (Publius.org also provides polling place information just by filling in a voter’s name.)
First-time voters: Many college students living on Michigan campuses, or out of state, will find they have to go home if they want to vote. That's because state law prohibits first-time voters from casting absentee ballots if they registered by mail or at a voter registration drive. (This isn't just limited to college students). The intent is to prevent fraud, but many states find it unnecessary. Some address it by requiring absentee voters to submit a copy of their photo ID along with their absentee application.
Michigan's voter turnout rate is better than most states'. In the 2008 presidential election, a record 5 million voters cast ballots. That amounted to almost 70 percent of Michigan's voting-eligible population (which excludes ineligible groups such as noncitizens and felons), compared to a national average of less than 62 percent. The numbers come from the U.S. Voting Project.
Even so, that leaves nearly 2.5 million residents who either didn't register, or registered but didn't vote. People of color and young people are less likely to vote than others.
"There are decades of research that show older people vote more than young people, and people who own their home and are settled and engaged in their community have higher voter turnout than people who are newer to communities and less settled," said Jocelyn Kiley, senior researcher at the Pew Center for the People and the Press. "The more settled you are in a community, the more engaged you are with local politics, and the issues truly feel like they have more of an impact on your day-to-day life."
Longtime Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell said he expects turnout among young people to drop this year because there is less excitement around Barack Obama's candidacy. "A number of those voters are discontented. If you're unemployed, if you have a college degree and are unemployed or underemployed, you're not going to be enthusiastic about the president, no matter who the president is, even if it's one you voted for," he said.
Turnout falls in off-year elections (45 percent of the voter-eligible population in 2010), even though the governor's office and both the state House and Senate are all on the ballot. And it absolutely plunges in primary elections. Less than 20 percent of the voting-age population (the voting-eligible population was not available) cast ballots in the 2012 primary.
"Most voters just don't understand how important primaries are," Mitchell said. "They are very busy in their day-to-day lives, and they just don't understand that the primary sets the tone for the general election."
Areas of improvement
Advocates of reform say more Michigan residents will vote if it is easier and more convenient to take part. Advocates point to a variety of changes to increase voting ease:
Online registration: About 100 million residents live in the 12 states that allow people to register online.
"States that are lagging behind in that regard are going to find themselves playing catch-up because it's one of the rare win-wins in government," said Becker, of the Pew Center on the States. It improves the integrity of the process, it leads to more accurate records, and it also saves a lot of money."
Other states allow residents to register much closer to election day than Michigan — in some cases on election day itself. Michigan's deadline was Oct. 9, almost four weeks before the election.
Absentee voting: In today's fast-paced world, most states allow voters to cast absentee ballots simply for convenience or personal preference. (For state-by-state information about policies, click here.) But efforts to establish so-called no-reason absentee voting in Michigan have failed many times, be they from legislative Democrats or a Republican secretary of state. Voters are only eligible to vote absentee if they meet one of six conditions:
-- At least 60 years old
-- Unable to vote without assistance at the polls
-- Expecting to be out of town on election day
-- In jail awaiting arraignment or trial
-- Unable to attend the polls due to religious reasons
-- Working as an election inspector in another precinct.
Despite the restrictions, about 20 percent of Michigan votes are cast absentee. To encourage absentee voting, the Michigan Republican Party recently sent mailers to voters telling them that it is "easy to vote by mail." There's no mention that most voters are ineligible to vote absentee most of the time. Woodhams of the Secretary of State's office said voters would find out when they received an absentee ballot application.
Early voting: Thirty-two states allow for early voting for various periods of time. The goal is to make voting more convenient and reduce lines at the polls. Legislators in some states reduced the early-voting windows this year. That hasn't been an issue in Michigan since early voting does not exist.
Chris Andrews is senior editor at Public Policy Associates, Inc. In addition to working as a freelance writer and editor, he teaches journalism at Michigan State University. Andrews was an editor at the Lansing State Journal and a reporter at the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union.