State laws and the vote

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 1:54pm

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This year voters turned out in record numbers to make their voices heard. Whether voting by mail, early or on Election Day, over 145 million Americans voted just in the presidential race, likely making this the highest voter turnout in American history. This increase in voting was not only a sign of anger toward President Donald Trump, it was also a display of what can happen when states create laws that make it easier to vote and receive the results. 

In 2018, Michigan voters passed Proposal 3, which reformed our state’s voting laws. This proposal allowed people to register to vote up until Election Day, authorized no-excuse absentee voting and created a system where people could vote early at their clerk’s office. This policy was approved by 66% of Michigan voters, showing that making voting easier is not a partisan issue. 

These changes were especially salient for students. Prior to 2018 and the passing of Proposal 3, Michigan students were extremely disadvantaged by our voting laws. Students had to be registered to vote 30 days before the election, which is too early for some students to start thinking about the upcoming election. The lack of early voting or no-excuse absentee voting also made voting hard for students. For students with academic or work commitments on Election Day, the lack of alternative voting options was detrimental. The lack of early voting also contributed to long lines on Election Day that may have discouraged students from voting. 

This year there were no longer issues. The changes made under Prop 3 created a smoother and more accessible voting process on campus. The satellite clerk's office at the University of Michigan Museum of Art allowed students to register and vote early up until and on Election Day. Over 5,000 students registered to vote at the UMMA and over 8,000 people submitted their ballots at the ballot dropbox. Many students also benefited from easier absentee laws to request a ballot to vote in their home districts and counties. So many students took advantage of these early voting options that the lines at the polls on election day were considerably shorter than on Election Day in 2016.

Across the state and the nation, increased access to absentee voting undoubtedly contributed to the increased voter turnout. However, we also saw that certain election laws can have a negative impact on the voting process. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, there are laws on the books that prohibited the processing or counting of absentee ballots until Election Day.

I chose to vote early in Ann Arbor in order to avoid going in person on Election Day and adding to the line at the polls. I received my ballot in the mail and in early October went with some friends to drop our completed ballots in the UMMA dropbox. Within two days, I received an email confirming that my ballot had been received. However, despite my ballot arriving almost a month before Election Day, it could not have been counted until the morning of the election. 

This rule is one of the main reasons why votes took so long to be counted this year in critical swing states including Michigan. States like Florida processed absentee ballots once they arrived and allowed for the results to be seen on the night of the election. However, in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania it took a few days before the absentee ballots could be counted and a winner could be confirmed. 

This extended waiting time forced by state laws was especially problematic because it allowed misinformation to spread. Since many Republicans chose to vote in person, the election night results were much more Republican-leaning. This led to Trump falsely and prematurely declaring victory despite hundreds of thousands of mostly absentee ballots still outstanding. Once these absentee ballots were counted, the race was called for President-elect Biden. 

These issues with counting the absentee ballots in a timely way were not unforeseen. In each of the states, clerks and election officials had pointed to these rules as having a detrimental effect by delaying the counting and reporting of absentee ballot results until after Election Day. However, the Republican legislatures refused to make meaningful changes to these rules. 

As we look to the future, the 2020 election was overall a great experiment. It showed us what can happen when voting is more accessible without laws that present a barrier to voting or tallying the results. More people voting is encouraging regardless of who they voted for. Having more people engaged in the democratic process fulfilling their civic duty makes our country stronger. That is why we need states to put politics aside and focus on legislation that helps people vote and easily receive results.

 

Isabelle Schindler can be reached at ischind@umich.edu.


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