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.

Attack Ads Info Box

Excerpts from recent Michigan political attack ads

“In crunch time, Brian Calley fumbled. We need a strong leader.” – Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, against Lt. Gov. Brian Calley

“You can buy a Super Bowl ad. You can buy consultants to tell you the right political positions. You can even tell people you’re Detroit Tough. But in Michigan, we know tough when we see it.” — Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, against Sandy Pensler

“Senator Stabenow votes with [U.S. Sen. Elizabeth] Warren 93 percent of the time … Tell Senator Stabenow ‘no to government health care!’” — National Republican Senatorial Committee, against Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow


Statewide campaigns are going negative in recent ads

Capital News Service

LANSING — Although the first half of an advertisement from John James’s U.S. Senate campaign is spent questioning an opponent’s policy decisions and toughness, the campaign doesn’t want it to be seen as an attack on fellow Republican Sandy Pensler.

“We don’t look at it as a negative ad,” said Ted Goodman, communication director for James, a Farmington Hills businessman. “We’re very proud to have ads that focus on John James and how he is different from the other candidates that are running.”

In the digital ad, the campaign responds to Grosse Pointe businessman Pensler’s “Detroit Tough” advertisement, which aired on Super Bowl Sunday.

James’s 30-second spot opens by suggesting Pensler hires consultants “to tell [him] the right political positions” and questioning Pensler’s toughness. About halfway through, the ad shifts, highlighting James’ status as an Iraq combat veteran and self-described “conservative outsider.”

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette’s campaign funded a Super Bowl Sunday ad of its own, calling out Republican primary challenger and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s legislative history under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Attack ad or not, the decision to go on the offensive in an attempt to highlight a candidate’s uniqueness is commonplace in modern politics.

It is rarer for campaigns to take ownership of ads that go after opponents, as James’s and Schuette’s do.

Only about one in four ads that solely attacked another candidate or included negative content were funded by a candidate’s committee instead of a third party during the 2016 elections, according to data provided by the Political TV Ad Archive.

Letting outside organizations do the dirty work can insulate the candidate if the public doesn’t respond well to an attack or if the claims are questionable, according to J. Cherie Strachan, a political science professor at Central Michigan University.

“You don’t even necessarily have knowledge of the ad or how it’s being put together,” Strachan said. “It prevents the backlash.”

Strachan also said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which allowed corporations to spend an unlimited amount on political advertising, shifted campaign financing from being largely under candidates’ control to outside groups, like super PACs — political action committees — and nonprofit organizations.

“We have so much leeway for independent actors in the way we have structured campaigns,” Strachan said. “Maybe it’s not a good strategy for the candidate, but somebody that’s really angry — some group or organization that’s raised money — really wants to throw stones, they have free speech.”

Those outside groups can use that freedom of speech to say “negative things that aren’t a part of the official campaign strategy,” she said.

Ads sponsored by outside groups tend to be negative, while ads run by candidates’ campaigns tend to be positive, said Craig Mauger, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The network is a nonpartisan organization focused on the impact of money on Michigan politics.

“With this flourishing amount of outside money coming in, a lot of that’s going to fund negative ads,” Mauger said. “That’s why you see so many negative ads right now.”

Independently funded attack ads can be useful for a candidate, Mauger said. Not only can the candidate be shielded from blame, but he said attacks tend to be more successful in affecting public perception than positive content.

“They tend to work — people often remember negative ads and they may be more effective than your normal, positive ad,” Mauger said. “If it’s an outside or independent group making the claim, it’s harder for the public to tie those attacks to the candidate.

“Also, if there are claims being made that are false or fuzzy or inaccurate, it’s harder to hold someone accountable because it’s an independent group that might be hard to pin down who’s actually behind it.”

Strachan said the public generally expects attack ads to be a part of the political process, minimizing the risk politicians take when going on the offensive. She added that, especially with an increasingly polarized political climate, candidates are willing to “cross the line” more often and go for personal attacks or name-calling.

“Historically, Americans have accepted that politicians are on different sides and have different opinions, ideologies and approaches,” Strachan said. “There’s a certain element of negativity that’s sort of inherent in hashing these things out.”

In 2013, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson proposed heightened disclosure rules for negative advertising. Taking issue with the impact of “dark money” — funding from anonymous donors — Johnson sought to end the exemption of “issue ads” from the state’s campaign finance rules.

Issue ads are allowed to support or attack a politician or cause anonymously, but cannot explicitly call for viewers to “vote for” or “elect” a certain ballot option.

On the same day Johnson announced that proposal, the Senate approved a bill by Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, to exclude advertising from campaign finance reporting “if the communication does not support or oppose a ballot question or candidate by name.”

A month later, the bill was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, formalizing the ability of people or companies to fund unlimited political issue ads without public scrutiny.

Bills would make recounts harder in lopsided votes

Capital News Service

LANSING — Losers of Michigan elections would get a recount of the votes only in close races that they have a reasonable chance of winning under a bill proposed in the Legislature.

Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Park Township, hopes to tighten Michigan law after Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein filed for a recount in Michigan even though she lost the election by more than 2 million votes.

The legislation would change Michigan recount law to say that a candidate must have a reasonable chance of winning. Currently, the law allows any candidate to file for a recount.

Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sherman Township, cosponsored the bill and said the decision to craft it was because of Stein and the hassle the recount presented to local clerks.

“Everybody agrees it was a nightmare, it was unneeded, it was a lot of work for nothing no matter what side they were on,” Miller said. “It was just a logistical nightmare.”

Miller said the bill would add another hurdle before a candidate could consider filing a recount.

“Just preventing something that was unreasonable from happening in the future was the goal of this legislation,” Miller said.

The recount filed by Stein was allowed after the Board of State Canvassers voted 2-2 that it  should take place. Attorney General Bill Schuette had asked the Michigan Supreme Court to block the recount because he felt it would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

The state Court of Appeals later ruled the recount should not take place. It was stopped by a federal judge three days after the recount began.

The bill passed  the House 98-10 and referred it to the Senate’s Elections and Government Reform Committee.

The Michigan Association of County Clerks did not take a position on the bill, said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, who sits on the association’s legislative committee. He said he understands the need for clarifying language.

The bill does not change how election clerks administer recounts, he said.

“We certainly process a recount petition filing and move forward with the recount process the same as we always have,” Roebuck said.

The bill could benefit clerks as it sets a standard of what constitutes a candidate with a legitimate gripe about an election, Roebuck said.

“I just think that’s good public policy in my personal opinion in terms of using taxpayer resources,” he said.

Fiscal analysis paired with the House bill said Stein would have paid $973,250 for a recount and the state would have paid almost $1.3 million.

Another bill introduced in the Senate would increase the cost candidates pay for recounts and save taxpayer money, Roebuck said. The bill recently passed the Senate and is now awaiting a vote by the House.

“From the clerk community, we kind of see that recount fee as a deterrent as well for someone who is truly not (aggrieved),” Roebuck said. “If you’ve lost by a significant margin, I think it would be difficult to reach the threshold of alleging that you truly could have won the election.

“I think that recount fee increase is sort of helpful for setting a standard as well for why a candidate would actually come to file,” he said.

A candidate who loses by more than 50 votes or 0.5 percent of the total votes now must pay $125 a precinct for a recount. The bill would require a candidate that lost by more than 75 votes or 5 percent of the total votes cast to pay $250 per precinct.

Miller said the Legislature almost tied the House and Senate bills together so he believes both should pass the opposite chamber easily. He also said he believes the governor will sign them into law.

Candidates who lose close elections shouldn’t be deterred from recounts, Roebuck said.

“We certainly want a candidate who has lost by a slim margin (to file a recount) and there’s a potential there for even a simple mistake to potentially overturn an election,” he said. “We want that candidate to be able to come to the table and make sure they have the right to a recount.”