No campaign season is truly complete without the biennial “voter suppression/secure vote” scrum that Democrats and Republicans can’t help but roll around, particularly when they smell a close election.
This year’s version features Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s unenforceable mandate that election workers ask every voter to fill out a special pre-ballot question about whether he or she is a U.S. citizen.
The demand is fascinating since Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a bill this summer that would have made this question a state law. He thought it would create confusion with absentee voters who may innocently forget to check the box.
Would a mail-in absentee ballot count if a voter didn’t complete this question? Would these voters get another shot at it? If not, is that fair? Would their old ballot or a new ballot be sent? Who would go through the effort of sending this out?
So instead, Johnson has issued a decree that all local clerks ask a citizenship question to those who show up at the polls.
Clerks like Ingham County Clerk Mike Bryanton are telling her to fly a kite. Actually, he’s taking it a step further, locking arms with the ACLU and taking Johnson to federal court.
Among other things, the local clerks don’t want the extra hassle and paperwork to tackle what they see as a non-problem.
Last month, Johnson tracked down 54 non-U.S. citizens who voted a combined 95 times in recent years. Assuming the number is right, considering the millions of votes cast in that period, the percentage of error is infinitesimal.
Then we get to the ol’ voter suppression stuff — a canard, really, considering the equally infinitesimal effect in Michigan, unlike elsewhere, where battles are being fought over what might be true voter suppression efforts in 11 states, including several battleground states in the presidential election. Just Tuesday, a judge in Pennsylvania temporarily enjoined a portion of legislation till after the election that would have required a government-issued ID in order to vote. Opponents said hundreds of thousands of voters would have been disenfranchised.
In Michigan, voter rights groups point to a couple of instances in the primary where a voter was turned away for not answering the U.S. citizen question. But one of the voters was Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s Rich Robinson, who raised the objection just to see what would happen.
Robinson and the other one or two people were later contacted and told they could come back and vote, which they did.
Is voter fraud a rampant, uncontrollable problem in Michigan in 2012? No.
Did Johnson hatch this citizenship question to “suppress the vote?” I don’t believe it.
But a lot of people are convinced that one of those two prior statements is true, and that’s the issue. Why wouldn’t we? Our American history is rich with stories of blacks being turned away at the polls or dead people voting. Instances of either happening to any substantial degree in 2012, though, are nonexistent, at least in Michigan.
Keeping alive the perception of fraud (if you’re a Republican) and suppression (if you’re a Democrat) fires up the impressionable to scream, yell and (most important) vote. And it’s so easy since the media trip over themselves with the coverage.
I know I do. Voter suppression/fraud stories make good headlines. Consider the following:
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, blasted off a fundraising e-mail that contained a Michigan Republican Party plea for volunteer poll challengers on Election Day.
“So instead of trying to win on the merits, Republicans in Michigan are launching a statewide effort to suppress the Democratic vote,” wrote Stabenow campaign manager Dan Farough.
MRP officials say it sparked the threatening call their front office received later in the day from someone who claimed they would “take out” anyone standing in the way of their right to vote. The cops were called and the MRP chairman called on Stabenow to condemn the fundraising letter. Again, more hysterical screaming over a paper cut.
Poll challengers from both parties have been hanging out at voting booths since at least the 1950s. You’ve seen them at the polls before, but they’re easily mistaken for a regular poll worker.
They cross names off some ginormous spreadsheet, make idle chitchat, pound coffee, find constellations in the specks on a nearby wall, anything to kill the boredom.
As it’s drawn up, the Republican and Democratic poll challengers are there to make sure the other behaves. Really, their main task is helping the 90-year-old precinct worker navigate their own huge spreadsheet.
About as often as someone hitting a $140 million Powerball jackpot, these poll workers come up big. They blow the whistle on that one jerk who insists on voting without being registered or remind a mistaken poll worker that a special provisional ballot can be offered to a person without photo ID.
And when they do, the parties proclaim the news far and wide. “Widespread voter fraud in Detroit” or “Republicans suppressing the inner city vote” is a convenient excuse when the results are unfavorable.
And people like me can’t help but cover it.
(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He´s at firstname.lastname@example.org.)