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Did the Secretary of State's office wrongly tell a US citizen he can't vote?

Oct 11, 2016

Updated 10/12/16 at 11:45 am to include redacted complaint and note from attorney.

A Kalamazoo man was wrongly told by the Secretary of State’s office that he was not a legal U.S. citizen and therefore was ineligible to vote, according to the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. 

Managing attorney Susan Reed said the young man, who doesn’t want to be named, was born in Liberia and became a U.S. citizen when his American parents adopted him 10 years ago.

He turned 18 earlier this year, registered to vote, and cast a ballot in the state primary.

But when he and his dad went to their local SOS branch to get him a state ID, a staffer told him that he was not, in fact, a legal U.S. citizen – and therefore shouldn’t have voted.

That’s despite him presenting documentation proving his citizenship, Reed said.

“Many others in their situation would have walked away, concerned that they were mistaken, that someone from the government had told them in no uncertain terms: you’re absolutely not a citizen, you shouldn’t have voted,” Reed said.

The young man and his dad then asked to speak with the manager of the SOS office, but were told the same thing, Reed said.

“Our client did speak with the branch manager on that day, he and his father. And the branch manager was also emphatic that our client was not a citizen and not eligible [to vote].”

Reed said they’ve filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. MDCR spokesperson Vicky Levengood said they’ve received the complaint, though she said it’s been returned to the complainant because it still needs his signature (Reed says the original complaint submitted did have the man's signature, and the form that the MDCR sent back  for signature is one that only that department can provide as part of the normal complaint process.) 

“They then return it to us, and then the complaint will be assigned to an investigator,” Levengood says. “We don’t typically comment on an investigation when it’s ongoing.”

But Reed worries this may be part of a bigger problem.

“The Secretary of State [Ruth Johnson] has been very vocal for the past several years about concerns about alleged noncitizen voting. And of course, this is not a case of noncitizen voting. But my concern is that the level of zeal may have influenced the approach here,” Reed said. “Because it fits into a national pattern of voter suppression that we’ve seen around the country, particularly focused on communities of color.”

The Secretary of State’s office said they don’t have enough information about this particular case to comment, but they’re looking into it.

“Perhaps there was a misunderstanding about what was being requested and why,” SOS spokesman Fred Woodhams said in an email today. “The group is welcome to provide more information for us to look into the matter.”

Woodhams said if the man in question is, in fact, an adopted US citizen, then he can certainly vote.

“Branch office employees do not have the authority or ability to cancel anyone’s voter registration so there is no reason to believe that his voter status has been changed. It’s not clear why he and clerk would have been discussing his voter status if he was already registered to vote.

“We’re contacting managers of both Kalamazoo County offices and surrounding counties,” Woodhams said. “We regularly talk with MIRC about various immigration-related issues to ensure our mutual customers/clients are being well served. It’s unfortunate MIRC hasn’t reached out to us regarding this issue.”