UM, MSU College Dems sue Secretary of State over voter laws' constitutionality

Monday, September 3, 2018 - 10:10pm

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Courtesy of University of Michigan's College Democrats

The University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, along with the Michigan State University chapter and the Michigan Federation of College Democrats, is suing the state over two of its voter ID and registration laws. The suit claims the laws unconstitutionally restrict a citizen's 26th Amendment right to vote, particularly for young voters and students.

The suit concerns two laws, Michigan Public Act 118 and Michigan Compiled Laws 168.509t(2), which the organizations claim make voting more difficult and time-consuming and in turn, discourage voters from casting their ballots.

Public Act 118 requires the voter’s residence on their voter registration card to match their residence on their driver’s license. The Michigan Compiled Laws statute requires voters who register through a third party or by mail to vote in-person for their first-time vote.

According to a press release by the plaintiffs, the complaint was filed by Perkins Coie LLP and MSU law professor Mark Totten and outlined the claims from College Democrats alleging the laws add to the general confusion about voting and discourage young voters.

“(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.”

The complaint names Secretary of State Ruth Johnson (R) as its primary defendant. A spokesman for Johnson, Fred Woodhams, said their office was surprised by the filing of the suit.

“We’re taken by surprise with what is seemingly an odd lawsuit, which was litigated almost 20 years ago in federal court. For more than 20 years, residents have been able to conveniently update their address for both driver’s license and voting purposes,” Woodhams wrote in an email to the Daily. “Separating a person’s address for voting and licensing purposes would cause confusion and lead to different addresses for people who thought they had changed both.”

Marc Elias, a partner at Perkins Coie, is one of the plaintiff’s lawyers. Elias, who served as general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, also represented a group of college students in Florida in their successful suit to remove a ban on early voting on college campuses. It was the first time a judge ruled that a policy constituted discrimination under the 26th Amendment.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum supported the plaintiffs in the suit, declaring in a press release Michigan has “some of the toughest and unnecessary voting restrictions in the country.”

“These restrictions have had a devastating impact on the ability of students voters to exercise their right to vote for more than a decade,” Byrum wrote.

MSU student Eli Pales, president of MSU’s College Democrats, addressed specific ways the suit files believe the aforementioned laws negatively impact voters on their campus. Pales said the “First Time/In-Person Requirement” directly inhibits students who moved long distances to attend MSU from voting in their home precincts.

“This is obviously a huge detriment to a lot of students who registered at home, maybe at a high school registration drive or whatever it is, come to Michigan State University and can’t vote unless they drive home,” Pales said. “Here at Michigan State University, for the first year, you’re not allowed to have a car on campus which essentially means if you’re registered at home and you need to get home to vote, you need a parent to come to the University, pick you up, bring you back to vote, and then drop you back off which would take hours and hours of a parent’s day.”

Public Policy senior Kellie Lounds, president of U-M’s College Democrats, agreed, adding that in addition to the logistical hurdles the laws placed in the way of student voters, they made the process confusing, which ultimately discourages voting.

“I myself have encountered complications while registering voters in seeing other students be unsure as to whether they can actually register with their campus addresses and what the consequences of changing their driver’s license address are,” Lounds wrote in an email to The Daily. “It’s a fairly common confusion and this law makes it unnecessarily complex for students to exercise their right to vote.”

As for the residence law, Pales said the requirement complicates the registration process for students. He said MSU College Democrats often answer questions in-person while registering voters on campus.

Turn Up Turnout, a student organization at the University, spearheaded the creation of the Big Ten Voting Challenge, a nonpartisan initiative to increase student voter turnout at every Big Ten school. Perkins Coie asked Turn Up Turnout to join the suit as a plaintiff, but the organization declined because they feared it would be seen as a partisan gesture.

LSA senior Elizabeth Pratt, vice president of Turn Up Turnout, said it wasn’t an inherently partisan issue, but the nature of politics made it so.

“I don’t think it should be a partisan issue, because I think that we should all want people to vote regardless of who they are or who they’re voting for, because that’s a right,” Pratt said. “I think it happens because people bring politics into it. People want to be re-elected, and they know who their voting base is.”