Michigan's election system needs to be improved

Apr 28, 2014

Remember back to the nightmare election of 2000, when for five weeks after the voting, we did not know who our next president would be?

The culprit, of course was Florida.

You’ve probably seen those photos of confused poll workers trying to recount the ballots, holding defective punch cards up to the light and squinting to see if the holes were punched through.

Well, back then I felt sort of smug. Michigan, I believed, had no real problems as far as elections were concerned.  Our state cleaned up a lot of irregularities after a problem with a couple close gubernatorial elections in the 1950s. We avoided punch cards after a disastrous experiment in Detroit in 1970.

I thought we were clean, efficient, state of the art when it came to voting. Well, turns out I was very wrong. I didn’t know how wrong until I attended a presentation the other night by an attorney named Sharon Dolente.

She is director of something called the Michigan Election Coalition, a loose and shifting alliance of organizations from the ACLU to the NAACP to the Sierra Club, plus many voter and election law projects.

With the use of a short and effective PowerPoint presentation, Dolente quickly showed me how wrong I was.

In California, our most populated state, the average time someone had to wait in line to vote in the last presidential election was a mere five minutes, but in Michigan, it was more than 20 minutes.

In crowded urban areas, especially poor ones, the wait time was sometimes four or five hours, or more.

In crowded urban areas, especially poor ones, the wait time was sometimes four or five hours or more. Many working people can’t take off from their jobs or leave their kids that long, even if they were willing to.

Does that prevent people from voting? Of course it does.

We are, in fact, the sixth-worst state in the nation in this regard.

There are ways to easily fix this problem. We could open the polls and allow early voting on certain days, as Ohio and many other states do. We could simply say that anyone who wants an absentee ballot can have one, a privilege we severely limit today.

The computer technology exists whereby if I were in Escanaba on Election Day, a clerk could instantly print out a ballot for me that would include all my local races 600 miles away.

Most states have modernized their voting registrations and/or election methods in recent years in some way, but not Michigan.

Additionally, Jan BenDor of an allied group, the Michigan Election Reform Alliance, told me our integrity is further threatened by our technology: old machines using unreliable optical-scan tabulators.

One study of two elections in Allegan County showed mistakes and irregularities large enough to change outcomes in some races.

So Michigan elections badly need reforming.

There are few signs of this happening, however. There are those in government with a vested interest in not having more people vote, especially the poor.

Additionally, the Michigan Election Coalition seems too decentralized and weak to have much power to push the lawmakers to do the right thing. But things need to change, both in the interest of simple fairness, and to prevent something from happening to make us a national disgrace.