National voting rights groups have accused Michigan of failing to provide low-income residents with a legally-mandated opportunity to register to vote and ignoring other barriers to voting in the state.
Attorneys from Demos, Project Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the NAACP have sent a pre-litigation notice letter (PDF) to Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, demanding that she immediately act to bring the state into compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The law requires state public assistance agencies to provide voter registration services to their clients.
“Public agency registration is essential because it reaches people who are less likely to register to vote through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, the elderly, and the disabled,” said Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Program for Project Vote. “It’s important, it’s effective, and it’s the law.”
Section 7 of the NVRA requires state public assistance agencies to offer voter registration with every application for benefits, recertification, or change of address transaction.
But local offices of the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) have largely disregarded this law in recent years, according to the letter.
Michigan requires distribution of a voter registration application only when the applicant makes a request for one. To make matter worse, an investigation found three out of four clients who do request a voter registration application never receive one.
Registration data showed there was an 82.5 percent decrease in the number of voter registration applications submitted through public assistance agencies in Michigan from 2005 to 2008.
“By failing to offer voter registration at the Michigan Department of Human Services offices, Michigan state officials are making it more difficult for low-income and minority citizens to register to vote,” said NAACP General Counsel Kim M. Keenan. “The State of Michigan must fulfill its obligations under the NVRA. True democracy requires the participation of all citizens regardless of race.”
The non-profit group Rock the Vote has also called for the state to update its voting laws.
“Voter registration remains the single greatest barrier to participation for young people,” the group said in a study (PDF) published in June. “More than one-third of the hundreds of thousands of problems reported during the historic 2008 election were related to voter registration.”
The study analyzed the 50 states’ voting systems and ranked Michigan 38th nationally, thanks in part to laws making it difficult to obtain an absentee ballot, a lack of same day registration and not allowing registered voters to cast ballots a day early.