October 22, 2020

Very lame ducks

By Stephen Tuttle | Dec. 10, 2016

Michigan legislators, ever vigilant to the scourge of voter identity fraud, have introduced yet another bill making it more difficult for some Michiganders to vote. This is what passes for work during their lame-duck session.

Lame-duck sessions, that period between the November election and seating the new Legislature in January, are a time of pet projects and pet peeves. But rarely good lawmaking.

The proposed new voter law, if passed, is headed to the courts like all those before it.  Voters without approved photo identification at the polling place would cast a provisional ballot and then be required to show up at the county clerk’s office within 10 days to prove they are who they said they are.

New laws are typically enacted to solve some existing problem or legal flaw. Voter identification fraud, which this purports to prevent, is already nearly nonexistent. So far, there have been exactly zero verified cases of such fraud in Michigan during the 2016 election. Maybe because Michigan already has an identification requirement in place and there are both state and federal laws against voter fraud.

So, what problem is such a law trying to address? Since there aren’t really any fraudulent voters to stop, we have to look at who such laws most directly impact. Who loses when states require more hurdle jumping to vote?

The poor, the elderly, those with mobility issues, those who live in isolated rural areas, and minorities are most often the losers.

Some 30 states have now enacted some type of new voter requirements or restrictions in the search for the elusive fraudulent voter. 

Some have tried new identification requirements; some shortened polling place hours; some made registering to vote more difficult and extended the waiting period before new registrants can vote; some reduced the period during which early ballots could be submitted. And there were 868 fewer polling places in 2016 than in 2012 with nearly all the cuts in minority and poor neighborhoods.

All the new restrictions were enacted by Republican-controlled states, so we have to assume those states believed there was a political advantage in doing so. That’s especially true since none of the laws actually addressed an existing voter fraud problem because no voter fraud actually existed. They’ve made the cynical decision that more Democrats will be disenfranchised by new restrictions than Republicans, a net gain for them if not for the people they represent. 

The fraudulent voter is a mythological creature first conjured up by those claiming illegal immigrants were regularly voting. That demonization continued right up through the 2016 election. We now have people going on national news programs claiming there were 3 million illegal votes cast in California because they read it on Facebook. So far, there aren’t any cases of verified voter identification fraud in California. (What’s especially ironic is that of the 20 or so cases of voter fraud a year actually prosecuted, almost none involve illegal immigrants.)

The argument is always made that we require identification for all manner of other activities, so we should for voting. The argument ignores two significant points:

First, voting is a right guaranteed in the Constitution as opposed to the long list of privileges that require identification. Enacting laws that make voting more difficult is a little stickier than requiring your ID to get a senior discount.

Second, and for some reason this seems to have escaped some Michigan legislators, we already require a photo ID to vote. We all had to fill out those little cards and then present them with our ID to get a ballot. Those without such ID still filled out the little card and then had to sign an affidavit confirming their identity. County clerks’ offices check those things and compare signatures and addresses.

But our Legislature is undeterred during lame-duck season. Completely unnecessary voter laws? Sure. Restructure the retirement system for public employees in a way that could cost public school systems well north of $1 billion? Of course. Strip money away from that state park system? Right away.

More laws, especially voter laws, that solve no problem but create one for some people is absurd. Michigan constituents might be better served by their legislators finding ways to encourage more people to vote rather than creating yet another discouraging hoop through which those already on the fringe of voting must jump.

Only about 60 percent of Michigan’s registered voters cast ballots in November. More early voting by mail, more polling places in urban areas, same-day voter registration, and allowing multiple days of voting at polling places are all ideas that make more sense than new restrictions.

Our system works best when more people participate. Having a lame-duck Legislature pass lame legislation would be a poor Christmas gift.

Honestly, we’d prefer the lump of coal it usually gives us.

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