Over the weekend, the Michigan state House voted to join a number of other states that have passed laws that impede the work of voter registration organizations and restrict access to the ballot for thousands of eligible voters.
The legislation creates several burdensome requirements on community-based voter registration organizations, including registering with the Michigan secretary of state, and “promptly” (which is undefined) updating any changes to the information provided to the state. Also, the legislation would require a registered agent of the organization to receive training, to be designed by the secretary of state, on proper procedure for registering voters. The only people who will be allowed to register voters will be agents that the original registered agent has trained. The organization must keep on file for no less than two years the oaths of its registered agents accepting the penalties for not following the law.
All of these extra hoops could discourage registration organizations from working in Michigan.
The oath required of registration agents acknowledging the legal penalties is also problematic. The specific penalties are not spelled out in the law. The fear of unknown penalties for not following a new law may decrease participation in voter registration activities. A notable chill occurred in Florida due to similar restrictions and penalties. A judge in Florida recently blocked parts of that law because they are likely unconstitutional.
In addition to being a hassle for groups, this eleventh-hour change to election law — which will be in effect before the primary on August 7 — will cause confusion and cost Michigan taxpayers. Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency’s analysis of the bill stated that “the bill’s training program requirements are somewhat vague.” How accessible these trainings will be and how they will be conducted remains unclear.
Unsurprisingly, the cost of the training program is currently “unknown.” But whatever the Michigan secretary of state can put together in the short period of time before elections will cost money as will the rest of the bill’s administrative requirements, inflating the election bureaucracy at a time when it should be streamlined in preparation for the election.
Besides discouraging organizations from registering voters, the legislation makes it more difficult for voters to register themselves. If registering to vote absentee, one must have a state identification card, a driver’s license, or a “generally recognized picture identification card.” If they do not have a proper identification card, they will be required to come to the polls in person. This could discourage people from voting or even registering entirely.
In 2008, roughly 74% of eligible voters in Michigan registered to vote. In 2010, that percentage was only 68. The Michigan legislature should be focusing on ways to increase, not decrease voter turnout. Judging by the amendments that were rejected from the bill, the former is clearly not a priority. Those amendments included ones to allow for online training of voter registration agents, election day registration, preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and an exemption from the requirement to show a photo ID when registering to vote if one is registering family members.