Proposed constitutional amendment would streamline voter registration

Capital News Service

LANSING – Voter advocacy and civil rights groups are petitioning for a state constitutional amendment that would make it easier for Michigan residents to vote.

The campaign, called “Promote the Vote,” seeks to give military members more time to vote, automatically register citizens when they conduct business at a Secretary of State office and allow absentee voting without the need to give a reason. It also would allow same-day voting registration with proof of residency and straight party voting.

Under current state law, you need to be registered at least 30 days before an election  to vote. Military operating from an overseas installation are advised to send back their absentee ballot 35 days before election day, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

“We just want voting to be accessible, convenient and everyone’s vote to be counted and secure,” said Judy Karandjeff, the president of the League of Women Voters.

The proposal which is targeted for next November’s election, is backed by the league, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state and Detroit branches of the NAACP.  

The Secretary of State’s office is confident in the state’s current voting process, said Fred Woodhams, the elections agency’s director of communication.

“We believe that Michigan elections system does an excellent job of allowing voters to cast a ballot and have their voice heard.”

“Michigan saw the most registered voters ever in 2016,” he said. “Recent elections have seen near-record turnout.”

The Board of State Canvassers has approved the petition language, “and people will be able to sign the petition shortly,” Karandjeff said.

Backers of the proposal must get 315,654 valid signatures of registered voters to make the November ballot.

Only 15 states and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. The organization says there is strong evidence that election day registration increases voter turnout.

Promote the Vote isn’t the only campaign seeking to reform Michigan’s elections laws. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, a group of activists introduced a constitutional amendment proposal called Voters Not Politicians.

It would establish an independent commission to oversee the drawing of Michigan’s electoral districts. Elected officials would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

In December the group turned in more than 425,000 valid signatures to the Secretary of State, where the petition is under review. The redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years, was controlled by Republicans in 2011 and the party has since maintained legislative majorities in elections.

New study highlights impact of immigrants in Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING Amidst contentious congressional debate about immigration policy, including the future of the Dreamers program, a new report sheds light on one important aspect of the controversy surrounding immigration –  its impact on the U.S. economy.

There is no question that changing the immigration system is a priority of the administration.

President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address reaffirmed his intentions to tighten the borders, reduce the number of refugees coming into the country and change the system that determines who can legally immigrate.

In its new report, WalletHub, a Washington-based finance website, analyzed all 50 states for immigrantsoverall economic impact, workforce, socio-economic contributions, brain gain and innovation.

Michigan ranked 14th overall in the national ranking, while New York took first place.

The report addressed the question of how more than 40 million immigrants living in the U.S. impact the economy.

Michigan has a growing immigrant community, with nearly 7 percent of the states residents having been born outside of the United States, according to the American Immigration Council, with the largest number living in the eastern and southern areas of the state.

The council is a pro-immigration advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The state ranked high in the WalletHub report in brain gain and innovation — 6th in the nation — an assessment that supports an American Immigration Council conclusion that immigrants “make up a vital, educated share of Michigan’s labor force.

“Nearly 40 percent of immigrants in the state possess a college or higher degree, and more than four in five report speaking English well,” the council says on its website.

In addition to contributing to innovation, immigrants in the state  have been an important part of promoting agriculture, said Susan Reed, the managing attorney of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

The center which operates as an advocacy program and provides legal resources, has offices in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo.

Our clients contribute to the economy in various ways, she said. In urban communities, they spur entrepreneurial energy. Migrants farmers contribute to agriculture. They work on West Michigan farms mostly, where they help produce fruits and vegetable.”

New York-based New American Economy said immigrants make up  35 percent of workers in agriculture and 11.6 percent in manufacturing in West Michigan’s Mason, Oceana, Ottawa, Lake, Muskegon,and Newaygo counties and part of Kent County. The organization represents mayors and business leaders who “support immigration reforms that will help create jobs for Americans today.”

In that area of West Michigan, the group said 842 immigrants are entrepreneurs who contribute to the economy as consumers and taxpayers, paying a total of $72.2 million in state and local taxes in 2014.

Karen Phillippi, the deputy director of the Michigan Office of New Americans, said her agency “strongly believes in the positive impact that immigrants and refugees have and will continue to have, on the state.”

The office established by Gov. Rick Snyder “strives to make Michigan a more welcoming state for new Americans from all of over the world who are making Michigan their home, and appreciates the significant economic and cultural contributions they make to our state,” Phillippi said.

The Dreamer program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals –under review in Washington has 12,418 eligible participants in Michigan and 92.5 percent of them are employed, according to the New American Economy.

The Center for American Progress, a national liberal-leaning policy institute estimates that

removing them would have a $389.4 million negative impact on Michigan annually.

Michigan optometrist helps the world see

Capital News Service

LANSING — Thirty-one years ago, Nelson Edwards decided to see the world. Since then, he has helped the rest of the world see.

While studying optometry at Ferris State University, Edwards joined Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH), an organization with a mission to provide eye care in developing countries. Edwards is an optometrist in Fowlerville.

Edwards’ first mission was to Haiti in 1986. But that trip was cut short by a social uprising and overthrow of the Haitian government.

Upon returning to Michigan, Edwards realized he wanted to go again.

Continuing to volunteer with VOSH, Edwards has participated in 40 missions. His 41st was planned to be to Nkuru, Kenya, beginning Oct. 26. But reminiscent of that first trip to Haiti, politics and safety again disrupted his travel plans.

After the Kenyan presidential elections in August, accusations were made against the incumbent president of irregularities in ballot counts and interference in the election.

While protesting the election results, 33 civilians were killed as a direct result of police violence, according to a Human Rights Watch report. After an appeal, the Kenya Supreme Court nullified the election, and a new election was planned for the same date in October that the VOSH group was to arrive.

David Muiru is the director of projects for the Nairobi Utumishi Rotary Club and has worked with Nelson to plan VOSH missions to Kenya since 1998.

That inaugural mission was also met with adversity as the American Embassy in Kenya was bombed just months prior to the group’s arrival.

“When Nelson and I chose the date, we thought that the election fever would have settled down,” says Muiru.

The group now plans to arrive in Kenya on Jan. 12, 2018, and stay for 13 days. Muiru says the change was made because political disagreement would not allow the clinic to get the attention it deserves.

Muiru is responsible for ensuring that all the permits and procedures are followed.

The first step, Muiru says, is to notify local medical facilities and apply for the required licenses from the Kenyan medical board. Locally the process begins with contacting the county medical officer to request local doctors and nurses, working with government and police departments, and arranging transportation and lodging.

During the 11-day clinic each doctor will examine and prescribe glasses for about 500 patients. Most patients will receive three pairs of prescription glasses and one pair of sunglasses.

“Because we never know what kind of glasses or prescription requirements a patient might need, we bring between four and five thousand pairs of refurbished eye glasses,” says Nelson.

Any extra glasses are left with local eye care clinics.

If a required prescription is not available, VOSH and its partner Lens Crafters will fill the prescription upon returning to the U.S. and mail the glasses to the patient.

The Illinois chapter of VOSH has gone a step further. During a mission to Guatemala in 2014, the group engineered a field lab capable of completing glasses on location.

Most commonly the glasses are donated through groups such as the Lions Club, according to Daniel Wrubel. Wrubel is the faculty advisor to the Student VOSH program at Ferris State.

“We receive around a third of a million pairs of Lions Club glasses in a year,” he says.

First-year and second-year SVOSH students are responsible for assessing, tagging and verifying prescriptions to be taken on missions. Funds are raised for students in their third year to go on a VOSH trip if they’ve put in enough volunteer hours.

“We raise about $30,000 a year to cover the cost of their trip,” says Wrubel. “Last year I believe they only had to pay the deposit, so around $250.”

That is also the amount of hours that Wrubel estimates he puts in each year preparing for a mission to Dominique. Wrubel has captained the Dominique mission for 21 consecutive years.

Working with VOSH is only one of nearly 40 projects that Muiru works on in Kenya. He credits his education with instilling an understanding of community.

“I can never do enough for my community, I consider it a part of my life,” he says.

For Wrubel, the desire to help others comes from his own problems with sight.

“In school, I was held back, made fun of, because I had trouble reading,” he says. “Fortunately, there was a therapist who helped me. So I can relate to what it’s like to struggle without proper eyesight.”

For Nelson, the gift is not just a chance to see the world, but to see the world differently.

“You make friends and you hear news stories about a country you’ve been to,” he says. “You make a personal connection.”

Past pay should not affect women’s income, Dems say


Capital News Service

LANSING — Many women were forced to take pay cuts to do work they were overqualified for during the economic recession, Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said.

And now they’re being penalized for it, Greig said.  

As women seek new positions, their future salaries or hourly wages are often based on previous compensation — even though their skills and experience would suggest higher pay. This, among other factors, creates a disparity between men and women’s pay known as the “gender wage gap.”

In Michigan, women earned an average of 74 percent of what men made in median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers in 2015, according to the American Association of University Women. That’s worse than the national average of 80 percent. Continue reading

State laying plans to put new criminal justice laws to work


Capital News Service

LANSING — For the 18 criminal justice revamp bills signed by Gov. Rick Snyder last month, the next step is making the changes necessary throughout Michigan’s criminal justice system to spur them into action.

The updates to the state’s criminal justice system as a whole are meant to signal an emphasis on prisoner rehabilitation, as well as reducing recidivism and streamlining the system. This mostly involves incorporating more evidence-driven programs, or initiatives that have proved successful elsewhere.

Most of the bills will take effect on June 28.  Several of the bills will take effect starting Jan. 1, 2018.

Chris Gautz, a communications officer for the Department of Corrections, said the framework is being laid for a number of the new changes – especially those involving more complex issues and systems. Continue reading

Try 17-year-olds as juveniles, report suggests


Capital News Service

LANSING — Raising the age of juvenile offenders by a year could reduce crime, cost little, and lead to better lives for thousands of young people, a recent report concludes.

In Michigan, 17-year-olds can be tried as adults in court. Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute Executive Director Marc Schindler said placing juveniles in adult detention centers can create problems, like kids committing more serious crimes more often after being incarcerated with adults.

Seven other states have recently raised the age for juveniles to be tried as adults to 18, and Schindler said those states have seen some benefits already.

Kids incarcerated in juvenile centers are less likely to continue committing crimes when they’re released, unlike kids incarcerated with adults, Schindler said. Continue reading

Efforts lag to help mentally ill prisoners


Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite recent efforts, treatment of people with mental illnesses in jails and prisons is still inadequate, experts agree.

Up to 64 percent of inmates in Michigan jails have a mental illness, according to an August 2014 report from the office of Gov. Rick Snyder. In Michigan prisons, the figure hovers just above 20 percent.

Stepping Up, a 2-year-old program launched by the National Association of Counties, aims to reduce the number of those with mental illnesses in jails across the state. By closely monitoring the status and collecting data on those with mental illnesses, the program aims to link various groups to solve the issue.

Despite the endorsement of the Michigan Association of Counties, the situation is still bleak. Continue reading

40 percent of households struggle in Michigan, study shows


Capital News Service

LANSING — While state officials celebrate the plunge of Michigan’s unemployment rate from its 14.9 percent peak in 2009 to around 5 percent today, more than a million families are missing the party.

Some 40 percent of Michigan households, or 1.53 million, are considered as either living in poverty or among the state’s working poor, according to a new report from the Michigan Association of United Ways.

That group includes both the 15 percent of households living beneath the federal poverty level and the 25 percent of struggling households that earn too much to meet poverty standards but not enough to afford basic household needs.

The United Way, a nongovernmental health and human services provider, reached these conclusions after studying income and employment in the state from 2007 to 2015. Continue reading

Bill would allow clergy to refuse to marry couples


Capital News Service

LANSING — Some religious leaders are questioning the necessity of a House bill aimed at further protecting their First Amendment rights.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Noble, R-Plymouth, would allow ministers, clerics and other religious practitioners to refuse to marry couples who violate the religious beliefs of the clergy. Noble, who is a minister, declined to be interviewed.

Co-sponsor Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, said he feels that the First Amendment already provides these protections to religious leaders, but some legislators want statutory protections to go beyond religious freedom.

“I feel that religious institutions have come under assault in the past,” Barrett said. “We didn’t want to see a situation take place where people were forced to perform wedding ceremonies that would not meet the qualifications of their religious faith.” Continue reading

Public child support calculator can reduce conflict


Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan has launched a free child support calculator to help parents determine what their unique child care responsibilities are.

The public online tool, which existed earlier through several private websites, lets parents enter a number of variables into the state formula for child support and returns a payment estimate. The result is the same as would be determined by Department of Health and Human Services staff although missing or misentered figures could lead to variations.

State officials said they hoped the calculator would help reduce the conflict between parents that can come from child support settlements, helping both parents understand how support payments are determined and improving the chance for dependable and prompt payments. Continue reading