Never turn away a voter

Jocelyn F. Benson // Published February 23, 2009 in Detroit Free Press

The author calls for a host of election reforms to improve the voting process in Michigan.

About 15 minutes before polls closed on Election Day last November, a young woman ran into a northwest Detroit precinct to vote for the first time. She presented a valid driver's license, but a quick search of the statewide voter file showed she was registered to vote at another precinct.

She explained that she was staying with her aunt temporarily in this area of the city. She had worked all day and had not had a chance to get to the polls until now. The poll worker encouraged her to go to the precinct where she was registered. Another offered to give her directions.

But the young woman felt she didn't have time to get there. She left, head down, without casting a vote.

Had this voter lived in a number of other states, she could have cast her ballot at any precinct in her city, and her vote for offices she was clearly entitled to vote for (such as president) would have counted. Instead, she was turned away because of a legal technicality that prevents anyone from casting a ballot outside of her or his precinct.

Elsewhere throughout the state, it was not out of the ordinary for Michigan voters to wait hours to cast their ballots. At one point in Detroit's Beth Eden Baptist Church, hundreds of people stood in line, waiting five hours to vote.

And in the weeks leading up to the election itself, controversy surrounded ACORN and the submission of false or duplicate voter registration forms. One woman reported that she had received a letter addressed to her long-deceased brother thanking him for registering through ACORN. Clerks throughout the state grappled with hundreds of voter registration forms that were duplicates or had fictional names.

Promoting voter confidence in the integrity and efficiency of our democratic process needs to be a concern for our state leaders and all Michigan citizens. A voter's personal experience in casting a ballot shapes how they view the entire process. When voters leave a polling place frustrated or confused, it threatens the very confidence and participation that are essential to a healthy democracy.

In Detroit, City Clerk Janice Winfrey took several steps to help voters. In response to concerns about voters showing up in the wrong precinct, she instituted a program to allow voters who had gone to an incorrect precinct after waiting in line to be issued a "green pass." When those voters arrived at their correct precincts, the pass allowed them to go to the front of the line there. Winfrey also hired workers to walk up and down the long lines in some precincts to help ensure that voters were waiting at the correct precinct.

Additional commonsense solutions exist. Michigan is one of only a handful of states with restrictions on absentee voting. Unlike most other states, our laws do not allow voters to vote early, vote on the weekend, or vote absentee without having to submit a reason. Voters in states that allow early or "no reason" absentee voting experience fewer bottlenecks and shorter wait times. Any potential for fraud is eliminated through identification requirements that already prevent the possibility of voter impersonation.

Michigan should also look to other states for solutions to problems with voter registration. In some states, anyone who registers voters is required to register with the secretary of state. The individual or organization is given a code to include on all voter registration forms they submit, so that the origins of false forms can easily be identified and problems quickly eliminated. Some states also require those who register voters to train with the secretary of state.

With all of these solutions in play in other states, why haven't we seen any of these reforms enacted to address some of Michigan's election problems?

Because, like too many other issues in our state, legislation to improve the election process becomes mired in partisan rhetoric. For instance, the state senator who chairs the Senate Campaign and Elections Committee explained her opposition to no-reason absentee voting -- a reform supported by Republicans and Democrats -- by saying that "anything the Democrats want so badly, I am naturally suspicious of and almost always opposed to."

As Detroit embarks on a record four city elections in one year, it is time to move beyond partisanship and implement inclusive, commonsense solutions to the problems that plague our electoral process. Our democracy must be efficient, accessible and transparent, ensuring that all voters have a positive experience when they exercise their fundamental right.

That young woman in northwest Detroit, and voters throughout our state, deserve no less.

JOCELYN F. BENSON is an assistant professor of law at the Wayne State University Law School. Write to her in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or at