Rigging the Vote

After State Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. (D-Detroit) fought to stop Republicans election reform bills he believed would hinder the right to vote, he concluded something more sinister was behind the legislation than any real concern over voter fraud.

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and her colleagues said voting requirements needed to be tightened to combat potential “voter fraud,” but Durhal recognized a pattern of similar legislation spreading like wildfire across the nation just before the presidential election.

Instead of stopping voter fraud, Durhal said his conservative colleagues were undermining American democracy by limiting citizens’ right to vote with election reform “schemes.”

“These are supposed to be the guys who are hyper-patriots and yet, here they are violating their own Constitution and doing things that are unpatriotic and un-American” he said. “They literally want you not to vote-it’s just extreme, more extreme than the John Birch Society.”

Although the most onerous components of the election reform bills were ultimately vetoed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder because they would create voter confusion, the package drew national attention and outrage, placing Michigan squarely in to the middle of the debate over Republican voter suppression efforts across the country.


Passing the party line

The Republican-controlled House Committee on Redistricting and Elections passed along straight party lines three Senate Bills: 751, 754 and 803 that would have made it more difficult for community organizations to run registration drives and required more identification at the polls.

The bills expanded photo identification requirements for voters, imposed certification and Secretary of State-approved training on third-party voter registration agencies and required affirmation of citizenship on ballot applications.

Critics, including the League of Women Voters of Michigan, argued the bills didn’t make elections safer, reduced opportunities to register and created barriers to voting.

The new laws also were seen as unfair to voters and the community-based groups such as the League of Women Voters, who help register voters. Also deeply troubling was that studies have found that some people-disproportionately the elderly, minority, low-income and young adult voters did not have the type of ID that would have been required by the state and may discourage citizens from voting.

Durhal, Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and a member of the House Committee on Redistricting and Elections, pointed out that Michigan already follows federal law for verifying new registrants’ identity and the voter’s signature is compared to the signature on file to confirm identity for absentee voting. He said despite claims by the proponents of tighter restrictions on Americans’ right to vote, studies have consistently shown that instances of voter fraud are exceedingly rare.

“They simply want to keep people away from the polls on Election Day and are making it so difficult that people will say the heck with it and not even vote,” he said.

Cleaning Voter Rolls

But Gisgie Gendreau, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, denied the bills were intended to stop citizens from voting. She said they were merely an effort on the part of Johnson to clean up the voter rolls and ensure that qualified voters are able to vote with confidence. “She’s the top election official in the state and wants to ensure that only qualified voters can vote,” Gendreau said. “And she is ensuring we have qualified voters casting ballots.”

Gendreau said up until 2008 the federal Motor Voter Law required Secretary of State employees to inquire if applicants wanted to vote regardless of citizen status. And since it is a felony to fraudulently vote and some the non-citizens who registered and voted were inadvertently placed in jeopardy, including possible deportation, Johnson’s proposed election reforms were an effort to address that problem.

“She had requested multiple times on behalf of the state that the federal government provide us with citizen’s information,” Gendreau said. “We asked Homeland Security to help us clean up the Qualified Voter File. We obviously go through a rigorous verification process to ensure that anyone who is a qualified voter is not removed.”

Distinct pattern

Professor Jocelyn Benson of Wayne State University Law School and Director of the Michigan Center for Election Law in Detroit said the Secretary of State’s actions are not as benign as Gendreau suggests.

“The pattern we are seeing across the country, from Florida, to Colorado, to Michigan and Texas, certainly suggests this is a pattern of related events and related efforts all going in one direction to making it more difficult to vote,” she said.

Benson, who ran on the Democratic ticket for Michigan Secretary of State in 2010, noted that efforts oppose what citizens should expect from elected officials.

“The cumulative effect of all of these new laws will be to increase barriers to voting while there is very little happening on the other end of the spectrum to increase access to voting,” she said.

“In any elected administrative system we need to do everything we can to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. The troubling aspect of this pattern we are seeing is that all of these new pieces of legislation are only focused on one side of the equation and little is happening right now all across the country to make it easier to vote.”

Aggressive attacks

Those sentiments were echoed by Barbara Arnwine, President and Executive Director for the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is monitoring voter suppression efforts in Michigan.

She said Johnson’s effort was part of the most aggressive attack on minorities’ right to vote since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “Ruth Johnson as Secretary of State has certainly used her office to make access to the ballot more difficult for the citizens instead of facilitating democracy through greater participation by citizens, and she has obviously been aided by the legislature,” she said.

A study released in August by News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative reporting project analysis, found that of 2,068 reported fraud cases, only 10 alleged in-person voter impersonations took place since 2000. That means of the 146 million registered voters in the U.S., the alleged voter fraud cases represent about one for every 15 million prospective voters.

The finding was consistent with other studies showing the impact of such laws, including a 2011 Brennan Center study of 14 states that passed laws or executive orders restricting voting. The Brennan Center found such laws could make it harder for 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots. Those voters are largely persons of color, young people and seniors.

For example, in Pennsylvania, as many as 760,000 or more eligible voters could be disqualified from voting because of failure to meet new photo ID requirements passed by its Republican-controlled legislature at the urging of its Republican governor. Many of the newly disqualified citizens had voted for years.

In Ohio, the Republican-controlled legislature dramatically reduced its highly successful early voting option established in 2008- including a ban on voting the Sunday before Election Day. The option had grown popular in Black churches, and the move was viewed as a tactic to hinder the Black vote.

‘Modern Day Poll Tax’

The Republican-controlled legislature in Florida followed the same pattern, aggressively purging voter rolls. Critics claim those moves disproportionately target minorities, particularly Latinos.

And along with passing voting restrictions so onerous that the U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against the state, the Texas Republican Party 2012 Platform has called for the outright repeal of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“The efforts being done in the name of defeating voter fraud have a collateral affect that is devastating to racial and ethnic minorities and the voter participation of many groups throughout the country in a very significant way,” said Hilary Shelton, Director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP and Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy.

Shelton said the impact of Republican demands for new photo IDs, shortening of hours of voting, eliminating Sunday voting and making it more difficult for third party non-partisan organizations to register new voters will prove to be insurmountable obstacles to voting for many Americans who merely want to exercise their franchise on Election Day.

“In essence, what we have now is a modern day poll tax,” he said.

Still, Oakland County Clerk Bill Bullard, a former state representative and senator who succeeded Johnson as the county clerk, dismissed accusations that the Secretary of State efforts were part of a nationwide and systematic Republican campaign to disenfranchise minority, elderly and youthful voters.

“There isn’t any grand conspiracy,” he said. “Republicans simply look at it one way and the Democrats another. Republicans look at it and think why shouldn’t you be required to ID yourself when it comes to voting? You had the fake tea party scandal (in Oakland County) where the top Democrats were convicted of 12 felonies and three misdemeanors, so no one can tell me that voter fraud doesn’t exist.”

But Durhal isn’t buying Bullard’s explanation. He noted that the Michigan Republican Party has been on a campaign to intimidate and suppress minority voters for nearly a decade going back to 2004 when State Representative John Pappageorge (R-Troy) drew national attention -and outrage-when he told the Detroit Free Press the Republican Party needed to “suppress the Detroit vote,’’ if Republicans were to be successful during that election cycle.

Anecdotal Evidence

While Papageorge denied his assertion was part of a larger Republican conspiracy to deny African Americans the right to vote, there was enough anecdotal evidence and a history of the Michigan Republican Party making claims of “voter fraud” and belligerent threats to unleash hordes of so-called “poll watchers” in urban communities around the state on Election Day that the Michigan Department of Civil Rights took the unprecedented action of issuing a voter protection “alert” that fall and collaborated with civil rights groups like the NAACP and ACLU to organize the most aggressive “protect the vote” informational and educational campaign in the department’s history.

Yet, just a few years later during the 2008 election cycle, the ACLU of Michigan had to sue then-Republican Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land over her illegal purging of voters just before the 2008 election.

“We won in the federal and district courts over Land’s purging of 5,500 people who were purged from the voting rolls, but were returned just in time for the election,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan.

Despite Gov. Snyder’s veto, with the prospect of a very close presidential election in November, Durhal said the Michigan Republican Party, like its counterparts across the country, is now doubling down on its efforts.

“They want to win at all costs and what they have is an agenda and they think suppressing the minority vote will allow Romney to win,” he said. “It’s not about anything else but that. After the November election they wouldn’t care if a zombie were allowed to vote.”


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