Michigan officials seek strategy to encourage voter turnout

By JOSH THALL
Capital News Service

Lansing — With voter turnout in Michigan steadily declining, some lawmakers and state officials are looking for ways to make voting easier.

In the 2014 midterm election, 41.6 percent of Michigan’s voting-age population turned out, according to the Michigan Secretary of State website. That’s a drop from 50.7 percent in the midterm election of 2006 and 42.9 percent in 2010.

To help encourage voting, Sen. Steven Bieda, D-Warren, recently introduced an amendment to the Michigan Election Law to allow for no-reason absentee voting. That means voters would no longer need an excuse to get an absentee ballot.

All but one member of the Republican majority in the Senate was opposed to the amendment, Bieda said in a news release.

Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, said he opposed the amendment because he thinks the proposal has many implications that need discussion.

“Ultimately, my primary concern is protecting voter integrity and the integrity of the vote,” Colbeck said. “That’s not something you throw up on an amendment, and then go off and expect everyone to jump on board.

“It’s something that you need to go through the committee process.”

Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, had similar reservations about no-reason absentee voting and of opening precincts early for voting.

“I think we need to have a healthy conversation and debate,” O’Brien said. “We are always willing to talk about what we can do to ensure that we have great participation in elections. At the same time, we want to make sure they are fair, and devoid of fraud.”

Michigan is one of only 14 states that does not have early voting or no-reason absentee voting. There are 28 states that offer both options, 33 states that have some form of early voting and three states – Washington, Oregon and Colorado – that have moved to all-mail voting.

“The Republicans seem to not be enthusiastic at all about early voting or absentee voting,” said Paul Abramson, a Michigan State University political science professor. “They seem more supportive of rules that make it difficult to vote, which they claim prevents voter fraud, when there is really no evidence, in my opinion, that there is any substantial voter fraud.

“For me, I find it hard to believe it has nothing to do with suppressing the Democratic vote,” Abramson said, “but on the other hand, there is not a great deal of evidence that would suggest such voter suppression makes a lot of sense.”

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, said he thinks a big step in increasing the percentage of voters would be to adopt no-reason absentee voting and early voting. The current law, he said, might encourage some people who want absentee ballots to misrepresent why they want one.

“I think we should try to remove as many barriers as possible from voting,” Hertel said. “Why we should require people to give a reason to vote absentee or make liars out of people? Just doesn’t make sense.”

State officials have tried to encourage voters by offering an email reminder system that citizens can sign up for that will alert them when an election is coming up, said Fred Woodhams, the communications manager for the Michigan Secretary of State.

Election officials are also increasing the amount of information available on Michigan’s voting website, Woodhams said.

“People can go in and they can view a sample ballot, which allows them to see what they are voting on and make a decision ahead of time,” Woodhams said. “The website has been optimized, so people can view it on their smart phones.”

Woodham said Johnson supports no-reason absentee voting as well as allowing voters to register online.

First-time voters, like college students, are restricted in their access to absentee ballots. First-time voters can not register to vote absentee by mail, and must go to their registration location in order to vote absentee in their first election.

Some colleges, like Michigan State, offer an opportunity for students to register and vote on campus, Abramson said. MSU offers an online registration form students can fill out and mail to their local government or take to a Secretary of State’s office.

East Lansing has also made it easier for MSU students to vote by placing five polling locations on campus.

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