Voter registration blues

Think you’re registered to vote? Better check and make sure.

In the ongoing saga of finding out why my wife’s name suddenly disappeared from the voter registration list after more than 30 years of never missing an election, I’m happy to write the final chapter. The real culprit in our particular situation seems to have been evil computers, not evil Republicans.

Gloria Williams, director of elections for the city of Detroit, and several staff members met with us last week to hear our concerns and to share what they found out after investigating. Six years ago, my wife changed her name to combine her last name and mine when we got married; apparently, that was the beginning of the confusion that caused the poor little machine up in Lansing that bears the mammoth responsibility of storing all the information on Michigan voters to start shuddering and spewing smoke.

First there is the record of my wife with her original last name. Then there is the record of my wife with a hyphenated last name. And finally there is the record of my wife with her last name followed by my last name, but without the hyphen. The wife I have without the hyphenated last name lives with me on the West Side of Detroit. My wife with the hyphenated name apparently moved back downtown in January of this year. I’m still not clear on where my third wife, the one who still has her original last name, resides, or why I haven’t yet been picked up for polygamy.

OK, I’m kidding about having three wives, but what happened in our particular situation is no joke. As I mentioned in an earlier column, what happened to us could easily happen to you, because it has already happened to others. June Williams, an election specialist with the city of Detroit who sat in on the meeting, described an earlier incident involving twins with similar names who lived in the same house. One of the twins could vote, but the other could not because the computer somehow merged their information — and essentially their identities — into one. Guess it figured that since Twin One and Twin Two were born on the same day, lived in the same place, and had similar first names — and identical last names — they couldn’t actually be two people. There have been other similar screwups where the identities weren’t quite so close, which can happen when a mechanical brain has the ability to make assumptions about who does and who does not really exist.

The lesson to be learned here, according to Williams, is that if you have any questions — or even suspect you might have questions — about the status of your voter registration, you better call the Department of Elections and get it worked out while there’s still time. I hope I’m not contributing to the already overburdened workload they’re struggling with down there, but they told me they are committed to doing all they can to set things right — just as they did for my wife and me — and I’m taking them at their word.

One thing Detroiters might check is the letter you should have received from the City of Detroit Elections Office that lists the names of voters who are registered at your address. When we received that letter we were pleased to see that we are now both registered at our current address, but we were a little confused about a third person who was also listed at our address whom we have never met and never heard of. Whoever this person is, if she lives outside our district and tries to vote in a different polling station near wherever she now lives, she will find that she won’t be able to vote unless she uses a provisional ballot. That could be another headache altogether, but more on that later. If you see someone you don’t recognize listed as a voter on the letter you received from the city’s Department of Elections, be sure to call them and let them know so that the record can be set straight.

Another way to check the status of your voting registration, wherever you live in Michigan, is to go online to


HAVA ball voting: Moving right along, has listed Michigan as a “high risk” state for possible voting irregularities come Nov. 2, so I called them to find out why Michigan was on this list. They referred me to Vicky Beasley, who is director of outreach and planning for People for the American Way, a liberal public policy organization that is closely affiliated with ElectionProtection.

“Obviously we are looking at minority communities” as the communities most likely to experience voting irregularities, she said.

In addition to large minority communities, the other red flag items that place a state on red alert status are communities where there is a lot of older voting equipment more likely to malfunction, and areas where election officials have not been sufficiently trained.

Next, I called Mary Ellen Gurewitz, who serves as legal counsel to the Michigan Democratic Party, to get her perspective.

“We’re planning for it if it occurs, and we will be out in force,” she said. “By ‘we,’ I mean there will be attorneys at hundreds of polling places. I would expect that we would have five or six hundred attorneys working at polling places where we would anticipate any problems.

“We’re still in the process of identifying areas where there might be a problem. I’m confident we will have many attorneys in Detroit engaged in voter protection and in any area with a sizable minority population.”

But despite the precautions being taken to protect the vote, Gurewitz strongly emphasized that “I would not want voters to worry. I wouldn’t want all this talk of voter intimidation to worry people or to keep them from voting.”

Gurewitz also mentioned the lawsuit that was recently filed against Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land by the Michigan Democratic Party and the Bay City Democratic Party challenging the way she has chosen to enforce the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) that was passed by Congress in 2002 in response to the catastrophe in Florida during the 2000 election.

Although the legislation was intended to clean up the voting process, the suit charges that Land, a Republican, is working against its proper implementation because of her decision to count provisional ballots only for voters who are at the correct polling place. Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer says that HAVA allows voters to cast provisional ballots if they are in the correct city, village or township.

According to an article in the Sept. 20 edition of The New Yorker, “The recent history of provisional ballots is not promising. For example, in Chicago during this year’s primary, 5,498 of 5,914 provisional ballots were ultimately disqualified. The question of how and whether provisional votes will be counted in 2004 is unsettled in many states and could delay the posting of results on Election Night.”

You’ve got to fight for your right to vote.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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