By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – While courts in other states wrestle with challenges to their voter photo ID laws in the run-up to the November elections, Michigan’s law is firmly in place.
Supporters of photo ID requirements argue that they prevent fraud at the polls, while critics counter that they discourage Election Day participation, especially among minority voters who may not have one of the mandatory forms of identification.
Michigan is one of 33 states where voters must show proof of identity, according to Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
“The long history of voting rights issues in the United States haunts this debate, with one side focused on preventing voter suppression and the other focused on preventing elections from being ‘stolen,’” the center said.
“Frequently, memories are invoked of the extreme suppression of African-American voters in the Jim Crow South or of corrupt ward bosses in the Tammany Hall era, for example, stuffing ballot boxes and encouraging voting ‘early and often.’”
Court decisions on the issue are mixed.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law for the 2014 election but upheld a similar Texas law, both of which had been struck down by lower courts. The Arkansas Supreme Court invalidated that state’s law.
In Michigan, a driver’s license, state-issued personal ID card, passport, student ID from a high school or accredited educational institution, military ID and tribal ID are among the accepted forms of proof. The documents don’t need to include the voter’s address.
Voters who don’t bring a photo ID to the polls can sign an affidavit stating they don’t have one.
“They can vote as if they had it with them,” said Mecosta County Clerk Marcee Purcell, president of the Michigan Association of County Clerks. “It’s just as if they had their ID with them.”
Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, emphasized that Michigan has a voter ID law, not a photo ID law. “If you have it with you, you’re required to show it. If you don’t have one or left it at home, you sign an affidavit that basically says you are who you say you are.
“We want to make sure everyone knows you don’t need a photo ID to vote,” Korobkin said. “That’s a much better system and makes sure everyone can vote, rather than very problematic laws elsewhere.”
In-person voter fraud appears to be rare in Michigan. Crawford County Clerk Sandra Moore said her county has never had a case in the 19 years she’s been clerk.
The General Accounting Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, recently reviewed 10 academic studies of the impact of state voter ID laws. Seven of those studies found that African Americans and Hispanic voters had lower rates of ID ownership than Whites.
The GAO report said the lack of a centralized source of data makes it hard to reach conclusions about the extent of in-person voter fraud. But it cited a U.S. Justice Department court filing that there were no apparent cases of in-person impersonation prosecuted by the federal government in the U.S. from 2004 through July 2014.
Although Michigan’s voter ID law is more lenient than some of the 32 others, voting is more restricted in other ways.
And those limitations deter many people from taking part in voting and other citizenship activities, critics say.
“We need to move in the direction of making it easier to vote,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Karla Swift, an advocate of allowing early – or advance – voting.
Such a change would result in higher participation and “more of a sense of democracy and fairness,” Swift said. “On the other side, there are efforts to make it harder for people to vote.”
The District of Columbia and 33 states – but not Michigan – permit people to vote in person before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. President Barak Obama already cast his ballot in Illinois.
Washington state, Colorado and Oregon automatically mail ballots to all eligible voters ahead of Election Day. The Oregon Secretary of State’s office says, “Since adopting vote by mail, Oregon consistently ranks as one of the national leaders in voter turnout.”
One of the starkest differences is that Michigan voters younger than 60 must have an excuse to qualify for an absentee ballot. Such excuses include being away from home on Election Day, unable to attend for religious reasons or being in jail awaiting trial or arraignment. Anybody 60 or older can get an absentee ballot
In contrast, D.C. and 27 states have no-reason-needed absentee ballot laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Purcell, the Mecosta County clerk, said the county clerks’ association “strongly believes that all voters should have the ability to obtain an absentee ballot without providing a justification. ‘No reason’ absentee will make voting easier, more accessible for all voters, and increase participation. Further, absentee voting provides voters with more time in order to be thoughtful and deliberate in marking their ballot.”
Voter participation traditionally drops significantly in non-presidential elections. For example, 4.7 million Michiganians voted in the 2012 and 5 million voted in the 2008 presidential elections. But in 2010, when the governor’s contest topped the ballot, that number dropped to 3.2 million.
Changes in Michigan voting laws are an issue in the contest for secretary of state.
Democratic nominee Godfrey Dillard has called for changes that would give all voters the option of an absentee ballot, permit early voting and allow same-day and online voter registration.
And incumbent Republican Ruth Johnson said she backs legislation to allow voting as early as 45 days in advance and to allow anyone to cast an absentee ballot.
Extra resources for CNS editors:
Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, http://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/voter-id-laws-empirical-evidence-government-accountability-office?utm_source=JR-email&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=JR-email#
General Accountability Office report, “Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws,” http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-634
By ERIC FREEDMAN