Commentary: Citizenship and voting

Oct 8, 2012

Three days ago, U.S. District Judge Paul Borman ruled that Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson had to stop asking voters to check a box reaffirming they are a U.S. citizen before casting a ballot at their polling place during next month’s election.

His ruling was about as surprising as snow in January, and I have to confess that I have a hard time understanding where the secretary of state is coming from. This was something the governor vetoed and her own legal staff told her to keep off absentee ballots.

But that evidently wasn’t clear enough for Johnson, In case you haven’t kept up with all this, here’s a recap.
The secretary, it seems safe to say, is obsessed with the idea that people who aren’t citizens are voting in our elections.

She first began talking about this around the time of the presidential primary last winter. After scrutinizing the 1.2-million people who voted, it turned out that the number of votes that might possibly have been cast by non-citizens was … two.

Not two percent, two people.  But that didn’t stop her. She pressed for legislation aimed at keeping aliens off the voter rolls. She got the legislature to pass a law saying anyone casting a vote at the polls had to check a box affirming they were a citizen.

Unfortunately for her, fellow Republican Gov. Rick Snyder promptly vetoed that saying it could lead to voter confusion, and added that we ought not to be in the business of making it harder for people to vote. What happened next was incredible.

The Secretary of State went ahead anyway, and attempted to require voters in the August primary to check the box.  After a number of voters, some of them prominent, refused on principle, her office issued confusing new orders in the middle of election day.

The clerks now just had to tell voters it was illegal to vote if they weren’t citizens. Well, some clerks got the message, some didn’t, and there still was a lot of confusion.

Then, almost unbelievably, Secretary Johnson announced she was planning on using the check box again in November.

She proclaimed that there were 4,000 non-citizens on Michigan voter rolls. Well, it turned out that was just an estimate, based on how many aliens live in Michigan, and it turns out that the number who records show actually ever voted is very, very small. Like, a total of 54 people, spread out over multiple elections. Ironically, most may have been signed up by the secretary of state’s office itself, which for years asked people getting drivers’ licenses if they wanted to register to vote.

Well, when Johnson moved to require her check box again in November, a broad coalition filed suit in federal court.

There, Us District Court Judge Paul Borman ruled what she was trying to do was unconstitutional. It was also revealed that her office quietly ordered the question removed from absentee ballots after they got legal advice telling them not to require it.

We don’t yet know if the Secretary plans to appeal the case further. We do know that Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.