Stateside: Secretary of State Ruth Johnson talks 'checkbox' politics

Sep 20, 2012

We are now 47 days away from the November general election.

Here in Michigan, the political races have some competition in the headlines with "the box": the box that you're supposed to tick off to declare that, yes, you are an American citizen.

Michigan's Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has instructed local election clerks to include that question on ballot applications - the ones where we list our name...address and date of birth.

That decree has sparked a lawsuit and some outright defiance on the part of some clerks who are refusing to use ballot applications with the citizenship question.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson joined us today to talk about the controversy.

Johnson was sued this week by a coalition of unions, civil rights groups and voters over your instructions that voters who show up at the polls on Election Day should be asked whether they are a U.S. citizen.

We asked her about the accusations that she's engaging in voter suppression.

Johnson said they had the checkbox is "nothing unusual" and that they didn't hear any complaints in February and May of this year. It was until August, she said, "a couple people didn't want to fill it out to show their displeasure with it."

Johnson said there is a problem in Michigan.

"We have some new data that's confirmed that we have as many as 4,000 non-citizens on our voter rolls. And that's because the federal government required Michigan, for over 30 years, to ask everyone when they came in for a drivers license or a personal identification if they'd like to be registered to vote. English often not being their first language, people signed up, got their voter registration in the mail and thought it was acceptable to vote."

She says they collected a sample of 19 percent of the non-citizens that come into the Secretary of State and found that out of their sample of over 50,000, 963 of them were registered to vote. And "some of them have voted" she says.

Multiply the sample of 963 registered by 5 and you get 4,000 non-registered voters.

"And some people say, 'well, that's not that many' but I beg to differ. 5 House seates in Michigan's primary last month were decided by fewer than 100 votes. And a recent congressional race in 2010 was decided in the primary by 15 votes. So every vote does count," said Johnson.

Cyndy asked Johnson if the checking the box is not mandatory to voting, how does it help to prevent the problem.

Johnson says ideally the federal government should step in, but so far they have not done so, despite her pleas.

"So is this [checkbox] ideal? No.” said Johnson. “But we believe that most of the people that are voting, are voting because they were asked and they received a voter card in the mail and it’s mistaken. We do not believe that this is some kind effort that has been organized to have non-citizens vote. So, most people are going to react to the honor system and do the right thing, once they know it’s a felony.”

She said the checkbox will take care of most of the problem, but the federal government to step in.

Cyndy asked Johnson about the clerks in Michigan who have refused to use the applications that have the citizenship box.

Johnson said the clerks who have said that didn’t have access to the information that showed how many non-citizens in their county are registered to vote.

“I don’t this this should be a partisan issue. It’s a common sense issue. If you’re not a citizen you should not be voting in federal elections. It’s against the law, the Constitution, and our American way.”

Johnson tried to codify the checkbox into law, but Gov. Snyder vetoed the bill.

She said she won’t be trying to get another bill passed in the near future, but will instead request that local city and township clerks to include the ballot box. She said she does have the authority to prescribe the forms as well.

Cyndy asked Johnson about her trip to the Middle East for “Operation Our Troops Count.” It’s an effort to make sure troops overseas can cast their ballots more easily.

Johnson said over a week they visited ships, embassies, and military installations in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

In the primaries, Cyndy pointed out that some in the military missed their chance to vote because clerks missed the deadline to get the absentee ballots out.

Johnson said that didn’t happen in Michigan because they extended the deadline.

“95 percent of the clerks [in Michigan] got out their military ballots on time. Some of them did not get it out on Friday and waited until Monday, so we expanded the time that they would count the vote three days past the election for our military, to make sure that every single military person that voted had an opportunity to have their voice heard to their ballot counted,” said Johnson.

There are two ways you can podcast "Stateside with Cynthia Canty"