Commentary: Voter suppression

Aug 8, 2012

There weren’t a lot of surprises in yesterday’s election. Turnout, which was expected to be poor, was poor indeed.

Most of the incumbents won, and in races where new districts threw two officeholders together, the ones who had the most money usually won, except in a few cases where they were outworked.

What surprises did happen were mostly under the radar. Few noticed, but the voters absolutely humiliated the Republican establishment in suburban Wayne and Oakland Counties.

Republicans like Brooks Patterson were horrified that the only name on the Eleventh District Congressional ballot was that of Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Party supporter so extreme that he wants to close all U.S. military bases abroad. So a lot of money was spent trying to get voters to write in the name of a former state senator.

Bentivolio, who avoided the press and didn’t mount much of a campaign, beat them by two to one. For their part, Democrats avoided nominating a LaRouche supporter who wants to impeach the President, though that far-out candidate did win more than forty percent of the vote. This may be an interesting race in November.
 But something odd, shocking, and unpleasant did happen, thanks to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. Monday, she directed all local elections clerks to ask voters if they were a citizen.

If they refused to answer or said no, they were not to be given a ballot. This was clearly unnecessary, confusing, and only makes sense if you are attempting to intimidate people -- minorities, say, who might be confused and a little frightened -- to prevent them from voting. It was unnecessary for a number of reasons.

For one thing, you can’t legally register to vote if you aren’t a citizen, and for another, there is essentially no record of significant voter fraud in this state. The secretary of state herself said she examined more than a million presidential primary ballots and found only four that were questionable. What’s more, when the legislature passed a law last month requiring the citizenship question, the governor vetoed it, saying that it would cause confusion.

But that wasn’t enough to stop Ruth Johnson. Yesterday, however, her action caused a flood of complaints. After Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network refused on principle to answer, and was denied a ballot, the media took up the case. Johnson’s office then backed down and issued a second confusing order at midday saying people who refused to answer should be given ballots anyway.

Detroit Free Press editorial writer Steve Henderson observed that yesterday, quote, “Johnson managed to erect an illegal barrier to balloting at polling places across Michigan,” adding,”that’s how voter intimidation works. You create laws that are unclear and unnecessary, and you enforce them randomly and unevenly.”

By the way, nobody asked me the citizenship question when I got an absentee ballot, but then I was a white man in a suit.

I’m not quite sure how Secretary Johnson justified trying to enforce a law that she wanted but the governor vetoed, but I am sure somebody needs to take action to prevent her from doing it in November, when four times as many citizens will be voting.

Otherwise, we could face unlawful chaos.

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