College Dems lawsuit brings about new changes to promote college-age voting

Tuesday, June 11, 2019 - 5:24pm

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced several initiatives designed to encourage participation among student and college-age voters.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced several initiatives designed to encourage participation among student and college-age voters. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

On June 5, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced several initiatives designed to encourage participation among student and college-age voters, including the strikedown of a current law requiring some first-time voters to vote in person.

The changes come from a settlement meant to resolve a lawsuit brought forth by the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats and other student groups alleging Michigan’s voting regulations unconstitutionally disfranchise younger voters.

“Going away to school shouldn’t complicate a student’s ability to vote,” Benson said. “Michigan has made great strides recently in improving access for all voters, and this is just the beginning of our work to ensure college-age voters have the information and opportunities they need to vote as engaged citizens.”

In late August 2018, College Democrats at University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Northern Michigan University and the Michigan Federation of College Democrats, with support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, filed a lawsuit against then-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Bureau of Elections Director Sally Williams.

According to the plaintiff’s press release, the lawsuit addresses two Michigan’s voter registration and ID laws, Michigan Public Act 118 and Michigan Compiled Laws 168.509t(2). The former law said the listed residence on a voter’s driver license and voter registration card must match, while the latter requires voters who register by mail or through a third-party voter registration drive to cast their first ballot in-person.

The plaintiffs, represented by Perkins Coie LLP and MSU law professor Mark Totten, allege the two laws discourage college-age individuals from voting by unnecessarily complicating the process and making it more time-consuming.

“(Y)oung voters in Michigan have faced unequal and consequential barriers in registering to vote and voting for the first time,” the complaint read. “Indeed, in many cases, these laws have resulted in a chilling effect that has kept eligible young voters in Michigan from voting and registering to vote entirely due to widespread confusion about the laws’ requirements and legal effects.”

In particular, plaintiffs claim the “First-Time/In-Person” requirement deter first-time student voters who have moved considerable distances to attend college or university, as they would need to return to their home precincts to cast their ballots.

After the lawsuit was filed, Michigan residents voted to adopt Proposal 3 during the 2018 midterm election. Among other changes to Michigan’s election laws, Proposal 3 permits voters to cast an absentee ballot without providing a reason.

According to Benson’s announcement, she will be overturning Michigan Compiled Laws 168.509t(2) requiring first-time voters to vote in-person, as allowing for no-reason absentee voting means the requirement is no longer constitutionally enforceable. Benson said she will also emphasize to students the ability for voters to register up to and on the same day they cast their ballots, another change brought in by Proposal 3.

The law mandating voters use the same residence for voter registration and on their driver license remains in place. However, according to a press release by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Benson is “committed to making it clear, through public education and outreach” that students can vote using either their home or campus address.

The lawsuit settlement also said the department will create a new website centralizing resources for college-age and first-time voters, which they will promote on social media. On the website, students can find information on where to register to vote, and those who register at their college address will receive a reminder to update their address with a link to the SOS address change portal.

Other initiatives focus on greater engagement with students and other college-age voters. The department said it will send letters with useful information for students every September to the Michigan Association of State Universities and non-member colleges and universities.

In addition, to promote voter registration, the department will deploy the Secretary of State’s Mobile Office with greater frequency to campuses across the state and encourage local clerks to visit campuses nearby.

There will also be internal changes within the department as manuals and training materials are updated to reflect renewed focus on these demographics.

In an email to The Daily, Ruby Schneider, University of Michigan College Democrats chair and LSA senior, wrote the previous laws disproportionately and unfairly affected students’ ability to vote.

“This recent announcement by the Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson, is a big win for all people in the State of Michigan, and a big step towards increased voter accessibility,” Schneider wrote. “Benson’s new efforts to engage college students in the democratic process will change the game in making sure student voices matter in elections.”

In the DCCC press release, MSU College Democrats president Carter Oselett claimed the new changes will help MSU students affected by “Republican voter suppression.”

“Here at Michigan State, we have seen how Republican voter suppression has impacted college students’ access to the ballot, and it is reassuring that after today’s decision, young people and college students, regardless of party, will be allowed to exercise their right to vote,” Oselett said.

The University of Michigan chapter of College Republicans did not respond to request for comment.

In the announcement, Benson said these “initial steps” to promote participation among college-age voters are part of a broader voter engagement initiative the department will roll out as the 2020 election nears.

“Young voters are the future of our state and our democracy, and we need their voices at the table,” Benson said. “I’m committed to removing barriers and also encouraging college-age voter participation with several additional initiatives that we will be announcing in the months and years ahead.”

In an email to The Daily, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., voiced her support for Benson’s initiative.

“Every eligible voter needs to be able to vote easily," Dingell wrote. "Obstacles have been put in the paths of young people voting. This step will make sure an important segment of our community can participate in the democratic process.”

In addition, in an interview with the Daily, State Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) noted young people face many important issues such as access to affordable healthcare, college affordability and changes to the criminal justice system. Irwin said he expects the SOS’s initiatives, along with the passing of Proposal 3, will encourage more college-age voters to participate.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” Irwin said. “Young people are the ones who are going to have to live with the consequences (of current-day policy) the longest. I applaud the Secretary of State’s actions, and I applaud the actions of the College Democrats at U of M for pushing the issue.”

University students reflect on first-time voting experiences

Schneider said laws in place during previous elections made it difficult to ensure participation for students on-campus.

“I have registered voters on campus during both the 2016 and 2018 election cycles and complicated laws made it difficult to ensure students would be able to vote,” Schneider wrote.

For Business sophomore Phoebe Block, memory of the 2018 midterm elections is weighted by a haze of stress and frustration. Block prides herself on the fact that she keeps up-to-date with politics, and she said this has been especially important to her since the 2016 elections, so when she was old enough to vote, she was determined to be informed on the process.

“When I turned 18, I registered to vote, and my dad was like, ‘If you’re an adult and you’re going to be voting, you should probably know how this works,’” Block said. “So I took it upon myself to read laws as far as voting laws as well as gerrymandering in Michigan and then how that may affect how my vote resonates in actually electing individuals … This was all kind of on my mind. Where was my vote going to have the most impact? It all had to do with Michigan voter laws.”

Block knew she would be on a trip to Puerto Rico for the primaries, and despite her research, she was unaware she could go to her local city clerk’s office and retrieve an absentee ballot beforehand. When she learned of this option during her interview with the Daily, Block was disappointed it had not been better advertised to her.

“I think just in general voting is this very vague, confusing, stressful thing that happens once every couple years, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Block said. “We have so much technology and so much media. It should be very easy to just be like, ‘This is how we vote.’ … It shouldn’t be this big mystery that’s like, ‘How do I participate in the democratic process that supposedly makes our country so great?’”

Lacking a complete understanding of her options, Block reluctantly decided not to vote in the primaries, under the impression the only way she could would be if she opted out of the trip.

Come fall 2018, Block decided she did not want to register to vote in Ann Arbor for the general election. She believed her vote would be more influential and pertain to more relevant local issues in her hometown of Farmington Hills.

Still without an absentee ballot, Block returned to Farmington Hills on election day. She did not have a car on campus, and her family members were also voting and unable to pick her up, so Block said she Ubered over a half-an-hour there and back, spending over $80 in total.

Block said she got up at 5:30 a.m. to travel home because she wanted to be back on-campus in time for her classes. Block said she still ended up missing one of her classes, and said her grade dropped 3 percent as a result.

Block said while in her Uber, she contemplated why the laws were so stringent. Following a quick Google search, she found out the United States has a history of older, financially-disadvantaged people being taken advantage of when others cast their absentee ballots.

Block said this gave her a greater appreciation for the value of voter security, but she still did not believe Michigan’s system was the best way to maintain that security, and many other jurisdictions have taken different measures to address the issue.

“I was like, ‘Okay, that makes sense, but does it make enough sense to where the first time that you vote it has to be in person, because that’s not how it is in other states,’” Block said.

LSA sophomore Andrew Beaudoin is from Colorado. In his hometown, there is not, nor has there ever been, a law requiring first-time voters to vote in person. Because of Colorado law, Beaudoin pre-registered to vote in person when he got his driver’s license, so his hometown was able to mail his ballot to his home in Colorado rather than having him vote at a polling location for the 2018 primary.

Like Block, Beaudoin said he felt his vote mattered more and would influence issues he dealt with more if it was cast in his hometown election. Beaudoin was in Ann Arbor for the general election, but he experienced no difficulty retrieving an absentee ballot for and voting in his hometown election.

“It came in the mail,” Beaudoin said. “I did my reading. I voted for things that would make changes in my own hometown. It was pretty straightforward.”

Beaudoin said he believed Michigan’s system, though secure against voter fraud, needed improvement.

“(Preventing voter fraud is) difficult to do, but I don’t think the way that Michigan had it, making it your first time voting, I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it,” Beaudoin said. “But I think there has to be further verification to prevent voter fraud.”

Business sophomore Jacob Paton said he disagreed, citing voter fraud as a false issue used by politicians to perpetuate partisan disfranchisement.

“How I understand it, voting security is not an actual issue and it never really has been,” Paton said. “It’s all about not getting the people you don’t want to vote to vote. So I think pretty much every precaution that they’re taking, whether it be in the 1950s when they would make a Black person take a test to see if they’re smart enough to vote, or whether it be making sure that poor people have ID which many don’t so that they don’t vote Democratic. I think it’s all for politics’ sake.”

Though Paton described the process as “annoying,” he was able to vote absentee in the 2018 general election for his hometown of Plymouth.

“I was at school, and I couldn’t vote unless I voted absentee, so I went to the Secretary of State during fall break and I told them I needed an absentee ballot,” Paton said. “They said, ‘Why?’ and I lied. I said, ‘I’m going to Mexico for the next three months and I can’t vote if I don’t get it now.’”

Paton said he only knew about the option to retrieve an absentee ballot in person ahead of time because his sister had done it before. He said the state should make the option better known to all first-time voters, because he did not remember hearing about it outside the context of his family.

Paton said he felt like he had to lie about his justification for needing the ballot because otherwise the state would not have allowed him to vote absentee. Paton said even after he expressed he needed the ballot immediately, the government employee tried to mail it to him rather than giving Paton the ballot to fill out and hand right back in.

Paton was able to convince the employee to give him his ballot same day. Paton said he would not have been able to travel home on election day to vote, but he, like Block and Beaudoin, felt compelled to vote in his home district.

“I’ve always been pretty politically involved, so I would have felt like a bad citizen if in the first election I could vote in, I didn’t, in the city I grew up in,” Paton said.

Because he was registered to vote in his home district, if Paton had not been granted an absentee ballot he would not have been able to vote at all in the 2018 general election. Paton believes it is critical everyone votes, especially in their first election.

“I think it’s important for young people to vote in general,” Paton said. “ … This is a young person’s world. Young people need to get out there and start making changes that are necessary.”

Block noted the heightened leniency with absentee ballot eligibility could increase voter turnout for people who work full-time jobs or are occupied in other ways on and around election day, not just college students.

“Really anyone that faces a time disadvantage, anyone who doesn’t have the ability to drop whatever they’re doing to vote is going to be impacted by this,” Block said.

Block, Paton and Beaudoin said they agreed voting is integral to our country’s functionality, and the way Michigan was going about first-time voter laws needed to be revamped.

“The very point of a democratic republic society, as it’s laid out, is that people have a voice,” Beaudoin said. “It’s not just overrun by people who can make such decisions without consulting the people they represent, so it’s important for people to have a voice.”

Schneider wrote the new SOS initiatives could propel student voices to have an national impact during the 2020 election.

“In 2018, we saw examples of college student turn out swinging elections,” Schneider wrote. “Looking forward to 2020, because Michigan is a swing state, it is my hope that this state-wide victory will have effects on national election outcomes. And it feels powerful to be a part of that.”