When Michigan’s 7.3 million registered voters head to the polls on Nov. 6, they will be expected to check a box to verify their citizenship status, a change recently added to the ballot by Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who is a Republican.
The new policy was met with opposition from civil rights and labor interest groups, and on Sept. 17, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of State’s office claiming that the measure is unconstitutional.
Judge Paul Borman ordered a hearing in a federal district court in Detroit for Friday morning. ACLU staff attorney Dan Korobkin said he hopes the judge will be able to take the box off the ballot in time for the November election.
“We don’t think that … non citizens should be able to vote in elections but the law is already clear … and in fact in order to register to vote you have to be a citizen of the United States and that’s very clear on the registration form.” Korobkin said.
Gisgie Gendreau, a spokeswoman for Johnson, said the citizenship checkbox is a necessary measure designed to confirm that voters are acting legally.
“The question is meant to ensure that only qualified voters are in the election because if a non-citizen votes, he or she could be committing a felony and they could be facing charges and deportation,” Gendreau said. “The Secretary is committed to ensuring that we have … only qualified voters vote.”
The change comes in the wake of a series of laws recently passed in 31 states that require voters to show photo identification at polling locations. Many activist groups claim the policies would disenfranchise minority and lower-income citizens, demographics that have historically favored Democratic candidates.
Political Science Prof. Vincent Hutchings said opponents of the citizenship checkbox are fighting Michigan legislation with similar logic.
“I think there is a perception that this is not an innocuous act … that it’s an effort to try to discourage people — to intimidate them from voting,” Hutchings said.
While Hutchings was reluctant to accuse Johnson of attempting to disenfranchise certain voting blocs, he said similar voting laws passed in other states have had clear political aims not relating to voter fraud prevention, which he noted is a nominal issue nationwide.
“I can say, speaking more broadly again, that these policies are disproportionately and overwhelmingly pursued by Republicans … and it seems perfectly reasonable to presume that at least some of them … are motivated by desire to discourage voters,” he said.
In response to accusations regarding Johnson’s motive, Gendreau said she is simply committed to upholding the integrity of the voting system.
“Anyone who is making claims of disenfranchisement is misleading voters,” Gendreau said.
Michigan passed legislation that requires voters to show ID at the polls in 2007, but the law allows citizens to sign an affidavit if they are unable to provide appropriate ID. Gendreau said the law, which was in effect for the 2008 presidential election, did not appear to disenfranchise voters, recalling that Michigan reported record voting turnout.
She added that until 2008, federal law required all Secretary of State clerks to ask customers if they wished to register to vote, regardless of their citizenship status. While the law has since been modified, the Secretary of State’s office estimates that about 4,000 non-citizens are still registered from prior to 2008.
“If you are a non-citizen and you vote, it’s a felony,” Gendreau said. “You can be deported. You can also have troubles becoming a citizen even if you’re not deported. So it’s a huge inconvenience and a huge problem for anyone who does vote who isn’t a qualified voter.”