Voting wrongs

The impact of voter suppression laws in Michigan and beyond

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, after this week's paper went to press, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a package of three bills considered by critics to be voter suppression measures. In doing so, Snyder, a Republican, acted in opposition to the GOP-controlled state House and Senate. Snyder's action was hailed by voting rights advocates. Todd Cook, director of the group We Are the People, issued a statement that in part said: "Our right to vote has been protected — and that's good news for Michigan. Thousands and thousands of voters asked Governor Snyder to veto this ill-conceived legislation, including more than 2,800 people who signed a petition from our coalition of seniors, students and working families. We’re glad he listened to us."

Howard Simon, head of the ACLU in Florida, says that the voter-purge cloud hanging over the Sunshine State isn't just an issue of concern for Floridians.

For starters, dirty tricks in just one pivotal state can play a critical role in determining who our next president is. We saw that in 2000.

While much of the media's attention back then was placed on the issue of hanging chads, the purging of qualified voters wrongly identified as ex-felons — who aren't allowed to vote in Florida — surely played a role in putting George W. Bush in the White House. As Vanity Fair magazine reported in 2004:

"For the 2000 election, a notorious ex-felon list, composed of more than 50,000 names, was compiled and the appropriate sections were sent by the state to the elections supervisors of Florida's 67 counties, along with a directive to purge those confirmed as felons from the rolls. It turned out, though, that the list had been swollen with an estimated 20,000 names of possible innocents, wrongly included. Roughly 54 percent of those on the list were black, while blacks make up just under 15 percent of the statewide population. In Florida, some 90 percent of blacks vote Democratic. "

Bush carried the state, officially anyway, by 537 votes.

Simon, who served as executive director of the Michigan ACLU from 1974 to 1997, describes Florida as a leader in efforts to keep people from voting. In that sense, he says, the state is "like a canary in a mine. Look for the same things to be coming to a theater near you soon."

In fact, the same sorts of anti-democratic moves making headlines in Florida are already under way in Michigan, as well as other states.

"Michigan's governor is poised to sign a set of three voter suppression bills approved by the House and the Senate — in a state that already has a voter ID law. A group of civil rights organizations testified against the bills [earlier this year], citing that the legislation would cause confusion for election supervisors and polling place workers, and that one bill in particular is 'especially problematic for organizations operating registration drives,'" The Nation magazine reported two weeks ago. "Like Florida, Michigan is a good indicator of what other states may have in store: creating barriers against the participation of marginalized voters in major elections, before they even enter the polling site."

"They are on a mission to shut down the vote of people who don't agree with them; if you can't get people to agree with you, then the tactic is keep them from voting" Ypsilanti resident Jan BenDor, a member of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Michigan Election Reform Alliance, says about the package of bills the Republican-controlled state Legislature recently placed on Gov. Rick Snyder's desk.

The Michigan effort, say critics such as Simon, BenDor and others, is part of a bigger picture involving the right-wing's efforts to sway the outcome of elections across the country. We've made note before of a statement from Paul Weyrich, often identified as the founder of the modern conservative movement, but it is worth repeating:

"I don't want everybody to vote," Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

Given that perspective, it should come as no surprise that a highly partisan right-wing organization founded by Weyrich — the American Legislative Exchange Council — has played a key role in producing model voter-suppression legislation that's been adopted in a number of states — including Michigan.

It is telling that a group as mainstream as the League of Women Voters is part of the chorus denouncing these laws. Last November, Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the group, testified about the movement at a forum hosted by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

"Today we are experiencing an unprecedented attack on voting rights," MacNamara said. "This assault on voters is sweeping across the country, state by state, and is one of the greatest self-inflicted threats to our democracy — our way of governing — in our lifetimes. These new laws threaten to silence the voices of those least heard and rarely listened to in the country — the poor, the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, the young and the differently abled."

All groups that, in general, are more inclined to support Democrats than Republicans.

The kind of people Weyrich and his ilk don't want to vote.

"These new laws," continued MacNamara, "require photo ID and or proof of citizenship in order to vote, they restrict third-party voter registration drives, decrease early voting and eliminate Election Day registration."

In Michigan, and elsewhere, these laws are being pushed under the guise that they're needed to address the problem of voter fraud — which isn't really a problem at all.

Proponents of the voter suppression legislation will point to an audit of Michigan elections that supposedly found that 1,375 deceased individuals cast 1,381 ballots between 2008 and 2011.

However, the office of one of the people pushing hardest for the recently passed legislation — Secretary of State Ruth Johnson — discounted the findings, saying, "no voter fraud was at play," according to a story in The Detroit News. Instead, the office, which oversees the state's elections, attributed the problem to errors by local election clerks.

There is a difference between election fraud — such as the illegal purging of legitimate voters from the rolls — which has been proven to have the capacity to change the outcome of elections, and voter fraud, which is, by all legitimate accounts, a complete non-issue.

"Study after study makes clear that voter fraud is extremely rare, and impersonation fraud — the kind of fraud used to justify tighter voter ID requirements and other voting restrictions — is even rarer," Wendy Weiser, director the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, noted recently in an opinion piece for U.S. News & World Report. "You are more likely to be struck by lightning than commit impersonation fraud, according to our exhaustive research. This makes sense, because impersonation fraud is a singularly stupid crime. You can't affect an election unless you do it thousands of times, there are lots of ways to get caught, and the punishment is severe."

In a study the Brennan Center released last November, it was found that the voter-suppression legislation being enacted in Michigan and elsewhere "could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.

"This is the most significant cutback in voting rights in decades," Michael Waldman, the center's executive director, noted in a press release accompanying the report. "More voters may be affected than the margin of victory in two out of the past three presidential elections."

Added Weiser: 

"These voting law changes are radical and completely unnecessary. They especially hurt those who have been historically locked out of our electoral system, like minorities, poor people and students. Often, they seem precisely targeted to exclude certain voters.

"After the Florida election fiasco in 2000, it became clear that the rules of election administration could affect outcomes. This time, those rules are being altered in a way that will likely hurt millions." 


Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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