Election groups up the ante in battle over "citizenship checkbox"

Sep 4, 2012

The Michigan Election Coalition has asked Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to remove the “citizenship checkbox” from ballot applications statewide.

But so far, Johnson says she has no intention of doing that.

The question—asking voters to affirm their US citizenship before voting—confused and outraged some voters in the August primary.

In a letter sent to Johnson Tuesday, the Coalition—which includes the Michigan ACLU, UAW, and other groups--calls the checkbox a “duplicative and unnecessary” question whose “sole purpose is to confuse voters across the state.”

Michigan law requires voters to affirm their US citizenship, upon penalty of perjury, when registering to vote.

Governor Snyder also vetoed a bill that would have put the citizenship question on the ballot, calling it too potentially confusing. And Johnson had to send a directive to local clerks during the midst of the August primary, clarifying that voters couldn’t be turned away even if they refused to answer.

Jocelyn Benson, head of the Michigan Center for Election Law, said some registered voters were wrongly turned away for just that reason.

“And other localities did not have this checkbox on the ballot at all,” Benson said. “So we know at the very least there was inconsistent enforcement of this prerequisite to voting, and that only added to the confusion.”

The Coalition argues that means the checkbox violates the state constitution, which “requires voting rules and regulations to apply uniformly across the state.”

But Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Johnson’s office, said the Secretary of State is acting within her discretion, and there are no plans to remove a “reasonable, simple question” from ballot applications.

Woodhams said that in addition to preventing voter fraud, the citizenship box also protects non-citizens “who may have accidentally registered to vote.” He said the office knows of at least one case of a non-citizen who voted in Michigan elections.

Benson said if Johnson doesn’t change her stance, the Coalition will “explore its legal options.”