Michigan voters get to have their say on whether to expand voting methods and options, and enshrine them into the constitution — a measure that doesn't have the support of the Republican secretary of state candidate but checks the box for the state's former longtime elections director.
The ballot measure under consideration next month — unusual for all that it encompasses — would allow same-day registration, no-reason absentee ballots and straight-party voting. It also would automatically register people when they conduct business with the secretary of state unless they opt out and lock into the state constitution laws already in place such as sending absentee ballots to military or overseas voters at least 45 days before an election, ensuring secret ballots and auditing election results.
GOP secretary of state hopeful Mary Treder Lang counters some provisions are duplicative and contended that same-day voter registration would burden clerks and not allow them to make sure people pass "smell tests" that come with trying to register and vote on the same day. She says on her website the initiative is "a progressive power grab" that will "add more bureaucracy, red tape and government regulations."
Backers, which include the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the League of Women Voters and state and local branches of the NAACP, say the initiative would make voting more accessible and secure.
Chris Thomas, who was Michigan's election director for 36 years until retiring last year, counts himself as a supporter of the initiative that he says encourages access and at the same time provides security. No-reason absentee voting, in particular, is an idea he said is long overdue for implementation.
"Four secretaries of state have called for (some version of it) ... but have been unable to attain that," said Thomas, who is a fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based public policy think-tank.
"It presses the hand at some point — let's go to the ballot because the Legislature is not going to enact it. It really would make it easier for everyone to vote — it's certainly not focused on any particular group."
Thomas, who has endorsed Democratic secretary of state candidate Jocelyn Benson, said Michigan is at about 27 percent absentee voting in statewide general elections. Michigan allows it for people 60 and older, which he said is the same as offering "no-reason absentee for a specific age group."
About three dozen states and the District of Columbia allow their residents to cast ballots during a designated period before Election Day, without needing an excuse or justification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-seven specifically allow no-excuse absentee voting, according to the organization.
One of the more contentious issues is straight-party voting, which the ballot measure would reinstate. The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder eliminated it — one of 14 states to abolish it since 1994 — and an appeals court recently suspended a lower court's reversal.
In its analysis, the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council notes the specific policy positions in the proposal "may very well be good, sound positions." But many also are found in state law and the center advises voters to consider whether such policies belong in the constitution "and avoid including matters ordinarily reserved for the legislative process."
Thomas said he understands the argument, but sees no problem with creating such constitutional "fixtures."
"I think it's certainly appropriate to put various rights into constitutions," he said. "It takes certain things and puts them of reach for the Legislature."
Wendy Underhill, the National Conference of State Legislatures' director of elections and redistricting, said many states have a single-subject rule for ballot initiatives, making Michigan unusual for having so many issues contained in one. She added some related issues do appear singularly on a few ballots elsewhere, including automatic voter registration in Nevada and early voting in Maryland.
Michigan's proposal shows strong support in a recent poll. One published Sept. 28 by the Detroit Free Press and other news outlets showed that 70 percent of likely voters were supportive of the proposal, 24 percent were opposed and 6 percent were undecided. The EPIC-MRA survey was done Sept. 21-25 and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.