Voting Reforms Needed in Michigan

Michigan Voting Reforms

The Michigan Election Coalition has released its post-election report and is calling for changes in the way Michigan conductions its elections.

The report–which looks at problems on Election Day and in the lead-up to the election–says that many voters continue to face intimidation, harassment, and other barriers when they attempt to vote.

To curtail these problems, the Coalition says that the state should adopt no-reason absentee voting, early voting, and update Michigan’s registration laws. According to the report, Michigan’s registration laws are confusing and often serve to disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters. Strict residency requirements and dropping voter registration after a voter fails to vote in two consecutive federal elections lead to disenfranchisement.

On Election Day, the Coalition reported problems with:

  • Registration Issues – Many citizens registered to vote but were not in the poll books, nor could they be found on the Qualified Voter File (QVF). Many others showed up at the wrong location or were informed when trying to cast their votes that they were removed from the voter rolls for inactivity.
  • Student Voting Issues – Many student voters had problems with their registration showing that they were registered for their “home” address and were told that they had to return home to vote.
  • Long Lines – Understaffed polling locations as well as problems with voting machines and staff contributed to long lines.
  • Malfunctioning Voting Machines – There were many complaints concerning either broken tabulators or jammed ballots in malfunctioning tabulators throughout the state of Michigan on Election Day.
  • Disability Accessibility – Many polling places failed to adequately accommodate voters with accessibility issues.
  • Inadequate Resources for Poll Workers – Several voters complained that poll workers were not adequately trained and/or lacked the resources to help them.
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Limited Voting Problems in 2008, but Racial Disparities Remain

A new survey has found that voters had generally positive experiences voting in the 2008 presidential election. Unfortunately, like so many things in the United States, those feelings were less likely if you were not white. People of color reported longer lines and being asked for ID more often than white voters.

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Earlier this month, MediaMouse.org reported that voting problems were not nearly as widespread as they were in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Now a new survey conducted by the Pew Center on the States, AARP, and MIT has confirmed this.

The survey found that overall voting in the 2008 presidential election went smoothly. 91% of those surveyed said that it was easy to find their polling place, 83% said their polling place was well run, and 75% said that they were “very confident” that their vote was counted.

However, despite the generally favorable assessment, there were concerns and problems, particularly along racial lines:

* On Election Day, African American voters waited more than twice as long to vote (29 minutes) than all other voters, who reported an average wait time of 13 minutes to vote. Early voters said they had to wait an average of 20 minutes to vote, but African Americans again reported an average wait time more than twice as long–43 minutes;

* Latinos said they were asked to show ID more often than whites or African Americans in states that require ID;

* More than half of the states require no ID to vote, yet 12 percent of voters in these states not requiring ID said they were asked to present an ID. Meanwhile, in states that require a photo ID, 20 percent of voters said they were never asked for one.

Beyond racial disparities, confidence in the voting process was also lower among early voters. Only 61% of absentee voters believed that their ballot would be accurately counted.

The survey was unveiled at a conference where Secretaries of State, election officials, and election experts were gathered to discuss electoral reform.

Anonymous Donors Dominated Michigan Supreme Court Campaign

The Michigan Supreme Court race was dominated by money from anonymous donors who funded some of the most controversial ads in the race. Undisclosed donors bought more than 60% of the ads aired during the campaign.

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Anonymous donors dominated the race for Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, contributing more than 60% of the total spending in the race according to a new review by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

In the race between Chief Justice Clifford Taylor and Judge Diane Hathaway, much of the spending was “off the books” in that it was candidate-focused “issue” advertising that is not subject to disclosure laws. This money–which is not reported in campaign finance reports–included a number of controversial ads:

  • The Michigan Democratic Party spot that featured a dramatization of a sleeping judge and testimony of a litigant who claimed that Chief Justice Taylor slept during oral argument of her case.
  • The Michigan Chamber of Commerce spot that encouraged viewers to contact Judge Hathaway and tell her not to be soft in sentencing sex offenders, as an unnamed assistant prosecutor asserted she had been in the past.
  • The Michigan Republican Party spot that showed a bikini-clad woman frolicking on a beach and said that Judge Hathaway previously had pursued a seat on the Court of Appeals so she could have a light work load and enjoy leisure time on the beach.

According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Democratic Party and the Michigan Republican Party spent $3.75 million on television ads in the race.

Unfortunately, this unaccountable spending is nothing new. Since 2000, issue ad spending has almost equaled the amount of money raised by candidates.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network is advocating for three policy reforms to improve the situation:

  • Require full disclosure of the receipts and expenditures for campaign advertisements that feature the name or image of a candidate, whether the ads mention voting or not.
  • Update disqualification standards for the Michigan Supreme Court to acknowledge the potential for conflict of interests when justices hear cases that involve major financial supporters of their election campaigns.
  • Develop a system of public financing for Supreme Court campaigns, so candidate committees have a viable alternative to soliciting financial support from interest groups and attorneys who may be involved in future cases.

Voting Problems Nowhere Near as Widespread as 2004, Opportunities Still Exist for Improvement

Far fewer voting problems were reported in Grand Rapids and the country as a whole compared with 2004, but there are still several opportunities to reform the voting process according to the nonpartisan group Election Reform.

Unlike the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, there was relatively little discussion of voting problems this year. While scattered problems were reported across the country–and in Michigan–the problems were largely under reported in light of Obama’s substantial victory.

In Grand Rapids, there were several reported problems. Most of the problems had to do with excessive lines at Alexander Elementary School. At the school, voters waited as much as two hours to vote in Precinct 17 of Grand Rapids’ Ward 3. The City of Grand Rapids blamed the delays on the high number of voters in the precinct and record turnout. However, given that similar problems occurred in the 2004 election, these problems should have been prevented. Beyond these problems, The Grand Rapids Press also reported that there were some problems with Republican challengers.

Across Michigan, problems were reported with long lines–especially in Detroit. In Detroit, voters reported waiting as long as three hours to vote. In addition, there were reports of faulty voting machines. The nonpartisan group Election Protection received reported receiving calls about 569 problems in Michigan with the majority being classified as “polling place problems.” This broad category included everything from voters being told they couldn’t vote at a polling place to polling places running out of ballots.

However, despite the absence of major problems this election, Election Protection says that there are still a number of reforms () that would help enhance voting rights. These include:

IMPROVE VOTER REGISTRATION PROCESS

The most prevalent and alarming challenge to our electoral process today came in the form of voter registration problems. Voters across the country arrived at the polls to find that their registrations had never been processed, that their names had been purged from voter lists, or that they had missed the registration deadlines altogether. Our first priority for improving this flawed system should be to make the registration process fair, accurate and efficient.

COMBATTING DECEPTIVE PRACTICES

Voters in nearly a dozen states today received misinformation about polling locations, times and rules. It’s easier than ever to disseminate deceptive information quickly – and with new mediums – and our election system needs to adapt accordingly to combat these practices and minimize the effects of partisan tricks.

UPGRADE THE ADMINISTRATION PROCESS

Today in Ohio, Missouri, Virginia and numerous other states, eligible voters were forced to cast provisional ballots because of ballots shortages, and were hampered by poorly trained poll workers, and broken voting machines. These problems could have been avoided if the administration of our electoral process provided officials and poll locations with the resources needed to handle the weight of full participation.

EXPANDING THE VOTE

We saw fewer problems in states with early voting. Early voting takes pressure off the system by easing the crush on Election Day, and by providing a margin for error when testing new systems of election administration. Today’s voters should not be constrained to a single day in which to cast a ballot.

On its website, Election Protection features a detailed report that advocates particular reforms that would address these areas.

Here in Michigan, the Michigan Election Reform Alliance is advocating many similar reforms.

Making Michigan’s Elections Run Better

The Michigan Election Reform Alliance has made a number of proposals–from no reason absentee voting to same day registration–that it argues would dramatically improve how elections are run in Michigan.

After standing in line for up to three hours to cast a vote, it should become obvious that there is a serious need for electoral reform. Even if one excludes the bigger questions–such as the system’s being rigged against third party candidates–there are a number of simple reforms that could be made to make elections run more smoothly.

The Michigan Election Reform Alliance–a group working to improve elections in Michigan–has proposed a host of changes that they argue would help the system. Among their suggestions:

* No reason absentee voting.

* Registration shall be permitted during the day of an election at the local clerk’s office, or, at the clerk’s discretion, at the precinct.

* The current requirement shall be dropped so that first-time voters who register by mail no longer must vote in person.

* Mandate a higher minimum number of voting booth requirements per precinct for general elections — 1 booth per 50 registered voters, providing capacity for 200 voters per hour. The current state requirement of only 1 booth per 300 registered voters, if literally applied, permits only 40 voters per hour.

* Require automatic, random, hand count audits by trained, independent auditors.

* A full recount by hand of the voter verified paper ballots shall be mandated for any race or ballot initiative in which the margin of victory recorded on the first full tabulation of the ballots is 2% or less.

* Rotate which party’s candidate is listed first on the ballot so that each candidate is listed first in an approximately equal number of precincts.

Unfortunately, election reform is an issue that has not gotten much attention. After the problems with elections in 2000 and 2004, most of the discussion centered on increasing the use of technology rather than reforming how elections are conducted.

Election Protection Wiki Launched

The Center for Media and Democracy has launched a new election reform wiki that collects resources on voting rights and reports on election integrity and makes them available in one place. The wiki identifies Michigan as a state where “the integrity of the election results is most at-risk.”

The Center for Media and Democracy–a nonprofit organization that runs the SourceWatch.org wiki–has announced a new “Election Protection Wiki.” The wiki–online at EPWiki.org–is described as “a dynamic new website to help safeguard the fairness and integrity of US elections, using the power of citizen journalism.” The wiki aims to collection resources from a variety of different sources and make them available in one place:

“Recent presidential elections were marred by controversies and disputes. Scores of individuals and organizations have been working to investigate and reform US elections, issuing reports and information on topics such as electronic voting machines, voter suppression campaigns and student voting rights. However, this information is spread across many different websites, news sources and databases. The Election Protection Wiki seeks to provide a single web portal for accessing this disparate information. Its information is non-partisan and factual; anyone of any political persuasion will be able to access and use it to protect every American’s right to vote.”

The Election Protection Wiki has a page for Michigan which it considers to be a state where “the integrity of the election results is most at-risk.” The page–which can be edited by anyone who signs up for an account–has a variety of resources on voting rights.

Michigan’s Public Financing System Facing Serious Problems

Michigan’s 32-year old public financing system needs to be either overhauled or scrapped according to a new report from the Center for Governmental Studies.

A new study by the Center for Governmental Studies finds that Michigan’s 32-year old public financing system is in a state of disrepair and needs to either be overhauled or completely scrapped. The Center finds that the system is not making good on its goal of increasing the number of candidates and increasing public confidence in elections.

According to the report, Michigan’s system is facing two major problems–expenditure limits are too low and contribution limits are too high. Under the current system, individuals can accept individual contributions up to $3,400 while still receiving public financing. Over the past ten years, most candidates have stopped accepting public financing and due so only when they are facing wealthy opponents because it increases the expenditure limits.

The report makes four recommendations to remedy the situation:

* Increase public funding for the program. With increased public funding, the program can again meet its original goals: to reduce candidates’ dependence on large private contributors, provide them with adequate yet neutral sources of campaign funding, and encourage talented newcomers to enter politics.

* Lower contribution limits and improve disclosures. Whether or not Michigan increases its public funding, it should consider lowering the program’s contribution limits. This will reduce the influence of large contributors on the political process.

* Shift funding for gubernatorial elections to Supreme Court judicial elections. If Michigan cannot increase the public financing available to its gubernatorial candidates, the most desirable option, the state should shift this money to a system of judicial campaign financing. This would allow candidates for the state supreme court to run without excessive dependence on private contributions, and it would strengthen the impartiality of the state’s highest court.

* Abandon gubernatorial program. If Michigan cannot expand public financing for its gubernatorial candidates or transfer the funds in that program to judicial candidates for the state supreme court, it should consider abandoning its gubernatorial public financing program as a cost-saving measure.

Green Party Sues over Electoral College

The Green Party has filed a lawsuit seeking the protection of voting rights by requiring that Vice President Dick Cheney enforce Section 2 of the 14th Amendment. That section requires the reduction of a state’s presidential electors in case of infringement on voting rights in the state.

A member of the Green Party filed a lawsuit late last month challenging the constitutionality of the Electoral College. The lawsuit–filed July 28 in Washington DC–says that the popular vote in the 2008 presidential election may be misrepresented–as it was in 2000 and 2004–by the “winter take all” nature of the Electoral College. The civil action is designed to protect voting rights in the 2008 election by seeking the enforcement of the “Mal-Apportionment Penalty” in Section 2 of the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution. That amendment requires a reduction of a state’s presidential electors and congressional representatives if “the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States… is denied… or in any way abridged.” The lawsuit names its target as Vice President Dick Cheney who will preside over the tabulation of electoral votes on January 6, 2009.

A press release announcing the lawsuit explains the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College:

“If two thirds of the voters in a state vote for a candidate from Party A and one third vote for a candidate from Party B, and the state’s winner-take-all rule gives all of the state’s electors to Party A, then one third of the voters have been disenfranchised in violation of Amendment 14, Section 2 of the US Constitution,” said Jody Grage, treasurer of the Green Party. “We’ve witnessed in election after election how some states have used the winner-take-all formula to prevent the votes of political, ethnic, and other minorities from being counted.”

“By refusing to challenge Electoral College malapportionment in 2000 and 2004, which blocked Democratic electors from voting in those elections, the Democratic Party’s leaders abandoned tens of thousands of their own voters, just as they failed to challenge the election irregularities in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004,” said Mr. Gordon. “Will they fail to challenge malapportionment again in 2008, and hand the Republicans another victory? Barack Obama would not be the Democratic nominee if not for the Democratic Party’s proportional assignment of primary delegates. The winner-take-all provisions in the general election present the distinct possibility that Mr. Obama in 2008 will win the popular vote by a considerably larger margin than did Gore in 2000, but will repeat the Democratic loss in the Electoral College.”

While the Electoral College received considerable attention and public scrutiny after the 2000 and 2004 elections, neither major party has taken any steps to reform or abolish the Electoral College. However, the Green Party advocates abolishing the Electoral College as part of its platform. Instead, it proposes the direct election of presidential candidates via Instant Run-off Voting.

Effort Aimed at Increasing Senator Campaign Finance Disclosure

Government reform groups have launched a new effort aimed at improving disclosure of Senate campaign finance reports.

A coalition of government reform groups including Public Citizen, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Center for Responsive Politics have launched a new campaign called “Pass S.223” to urge the United States Senate to pass a bill that would require improved disclosure of campaign contributions. Currently, Senate candidates–unlike the House of Representatives–file their campaign finance reports by paper, increasing the amount of time it takes before their reports are available via the Federal Elections Committee. Under S.223, Senate candidates would be required to file campaign finance reports electronically.

The bill has been blocked for over a year despite garnering 45 co-sponsors. The “Pass S.223” campaign is urging people to contact their Senators to encourage them to sponsor and support the bill. Thus far, Michigan Senator Carl Levin is a co-sponsor of the bill while Senator Debbie Stabenow’s position is unknown.

Group Calls for Abolition of Super Delegate System

A group called White House Rocks! has produced a video parody of the School House Rocks! series that looks at the role of “super delegates” in the Democratic Party primary. These 795 unelected and unaccountable delegates–who are Democratic Party officials, insiders, and office holding Democrats–have the electoral power of 8 million voters:

Check out their resource page for more on super delegates and to sign their petition calling on the Democratic Party to either abolish or “fundamentally reform” the super delegate system.