By KYLE DAVIDSON
Capital News Service
LANSING — Teenagers applying for their first driver’s license would be able to pre-register to vote under a proposal being drafted in the Senate.
The idea, put forth by Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, would allow the Secretary of State to ask teenagers at ages 16 and 17 if they would like to register. If they answer yes, they wouldn’t have to sign up upon turning 18.
Johnson formerly served as secretary of state under Rick Snyder and now chairs the Senate Elections Committee.
The process would mirror Michigan’s automatic voter registration policy. In that process, citizens going to a Secretary of State branch office to update their driver’s license or personal ID are automatically registered unless they decline or are otherwise ineligible.
In Washington state, teens can register as future voters at 16 and 17, which ensures they’ll automatically go on the voting rolls when they turn 18. In Oregon, Colorado and Rhode Island, teens as young as 16 can register to vote according to USA.gov, an online guide to government information and services.
At the moment, Michigan law allows only teens 17½ or older to register.
Garrett Wheat, Johnson’s chief of staff, said pre-registration of young voters would streamline registration, hopefully preventing the long waits that some new voters underwent in March.
A number of communities, including East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Dearborn, experienced delays of multiple hours in the registration and balloting process on March 10, the day of the presidential primary.
Johnson’s idea doesn’t stand alone.
Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, the first vice-president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said the organization has discussed the concept before and supports it.
“It’s definitely something that would help, especially the college towns where they had some huge issues on election day,” Swope said.
East Lansing City Clerk Jen Shuster said, “If this effort comes to light, it could possibly help with same-day voter registration high numbers, but I am also aware of the fact that many students will want to change their voter registration address from the one used when they initially received their driver’s license as early as 16 years old.”
Alongside efforts to combat voter hold ups, some officials say the change could increase youth voter participation.
Swope said, “Voting is something that we should all do and it should be relatively easy. My hope is — and I think there’s evidence to this — you start voting at an early age and you keep voting. We need people to participate, not be an audience but a participant.”
Despite Johnson’s support, some clerks have shown early concerns about this measure’s ability to pass the Legislature.
Joel Hondorp, the Grand Rapids city clerk, said that even with Johnson’s backing, bills to allow the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds have gone nowhere with Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
Also, new registration policies can raise concerns about fraud and citizenship status.
However, several municipal clerks said they are confident that current procedures would prevent non-citizens and other ineligible people from wrongly being registered.
Rachelle Enbody, the Pere Marquette Township clerk, said the voter registration database is already geared towards dates, and takes date of birth into consideration when determining voter eligibility.
And Swope said, “It’s my understanding that the Secretary of State already has in place a process where they’re determining citizenship. Since we have the automatic registration for 18-year-olds, their system is specifying what documents are used for proof of identity and using those to determine citizenship.”
Johnson’s bill is awaiting completion for introduction in the Senate.