Citizenship question easiest one to answer when I vote

Aug 10, 2012

When I voted on Tuesday, there were several things I needed to know. 

The toughest thing was figuring out who to vote for among all of the candidates for several obscure township boards and lower-level county offices.  These people do important things, but their work is almost entirely below the radar-level of most media.  Their names, and even the offices they hold, are relatively unknown.  It is sometimes hard to even know, without help from the ballot, whether I’m voting for just one candidate, or “two of five” names, or even all four of just four names on the ballot.

Next hardest was remembering my precinct. There were two, at opposite ends of the large community room in the church where I have regularly voted for more than ten years. Was I supposed to be in Precinct 8 or Precinct 9?  That one turned out to be easy; a glance at my voter registration card, supplied to me automatically and without charge, gave me the answer.  The backup plan would have been to just ask.

It might have been hard to remember to bring my driver’s license, which is required for a regular ballot (but not required to vote) since the church is close enough for me to walk.  But since I came from work in my car, I had my license with me.  No problem.  It almost never is.

Now, let me tell you the absolute easiest thing about voting. There was a question on the ballot application: “Are you a U.S. citizen?”  There were two possible answers: “Yes,” and “No.”  I knew the right answer.  I was already most of the way through filling in the circle next to “Yes,” as the poll worker said to me, “The citizenship question is voluntary.”

You probably now know the story behind the controversy over the citizenship question. My favorite story – I am guessing the best personal story of election day – is the story of Rich Robinson, the bright and engaging director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, who was presented with the same ballot application.  Being an extraordinarily bright fellow, and probably knowing more about election law and campaign finance rules than any poll worker anywhere in the state, Rich made an interesting decision; he refused to answer the citizenship question.

Assuredly, it wasn’t ignorance or fear that prompted Rich’s refusal; it was his profound and up-to-date knowledge that prompted him to create a test case.  There were, or should have been, other options to avoid any media-ready kerfuffle in Rich’s case. In the end, there were options, and Rich voted. 

Because the headline story will never be, “Rich Robinson Voted,” and instead will be “Voter Turned Away for Refusing Citizenship Question,” I’d like to examine the case more closely.

First, the unfortunate poll worker who encountered “Rich Robinson, election expert” was mistaken if she or he told Robinson that his refusal to state whether or not he was a citizen would allow them to deny him a ballot.  That was wrong information, and Rich Robinson undoubtedly knew that.  It should never have been stated as a voting requirement.  Poll workers sometimes make mistakes. When there are late-breaking changes in election laws (or even things that aren’t technically changes, as with Gov. Snyder’s surprising veto of the citizenship-question provision), poll workers sometimes make mistakes.  They did, in Robinson’s case.

But no matter what, Robinson shouldn’t have been denied a ballot under any circumstances. He should have been given a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act of 2002; why he didn’t ask for, or accept, a provisional ballot is unknown to me.  Perhaps Robinson will be asked more about his case, if he is going to become the world’s most unlikely poster child for “voter suppression expert.”

What we do know is that having been refused a ballot, Robinson left the polling place, called the local election clerk, got the (correct) answer that he wanted, and later returned to the polling place where he successfully voted and received an apology from the precinct captain.  “A happy ending,” Robinson told the Detroit News.

So far, Rich Robinson’s story is the one we know the most about.  If we learn of large numbers of serious ballot-denial problems, I will be surprised.  If we learn about any actual evidence of wide-scale voter suppression, I will be more than amazed.

I will be looking to the usual suspects on the Democrat-left side of the electioneering debate for real proof.  That includes the Democrats’ last failed candidate for Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson and her Michigan Center for Election Law and Administration. The “Center” is a project that Ms. Benson runs when she is not otherwise occupied in her day job as a Wayne State University law professor or directing the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights on the Wayne State campus.

Practically every recent change in Michigan voter identification rules and regulations has prompted some new complaint of “voter suppression.”  Those complaints are customarily accompanied by questions as to whether there exists any real evidence of voter fraud in the first place, and claims that there haven’t been any convictions for vote-fraud and indeed very few prosecutions.  "Why do we need laws strengthening voter identification rules if no one is committing fraud at the polls?" the argument goes.

Now, I shall be looking for the same sort of evidence on the other side of the coin.  I suspect that cases of real “voter suppression” are rarer than the supposedly-nonexistent cases of “voter fraud.”  Whether there is any real evidence of any “voter suppression” will make for a very interesting search.  And in the case of Rich Robinson, that search has started off by going nowhere.

Charles Brown is an attorney from Livonia. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.