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Voting by mail in Michigan

Aug 11, 2015

Last month the state approved petition language for three more ballot proposals – but the organizers of one isn’t satisfied. She's not dissatisfied with what the state did, but with the language her group submitted. They want to make sure they get it as close to right as possible.

They’ve talked to lawyers, revised the wording, and plan to ask the state to allow them to substitute the new text. After that, they have to try and get 315,654 valid signatures.

If they do that, and their proposed constitutional amendment gets on the ballot a year from November and passes, it will make it easier to vote, virtually guarantee that more people vote, and save the state millions every election.

The group is called Let’s Vote, Michigan, and their unpaid leader is one Jackie Pierce, who lives in Pellston, way up at the top of the Lower Peninsula.

And what they want to do is change the way we vote to a system in which all elections are held by mail. They aren’t getting a lot of attention from the media, because they don’t have any special interests with deep pockets behind them.

Nor do they have any slick political consultants.

They just have a bunch of people like Pierce, a 51-year-old woman from Flint who used to manage a Jet’s pizza outlet. They have the odd idea that regular people can make a difference, and that they ought to try to make democracy work better.

Here’s how vote by mail would work: The ballot would be mailed out two to three weeks before Election Day. We would have ample time to study it and make our choices. Then we could put a stamp on it and mail it, put it into one of a number of vote collections boxes across the state, or take it to our local city hall or a county elections center.

What this would mean is that we’d all have time to find out information on the candidates, say, for community college boards, and to analyze and make sense of all those ballot proposals. Working mothers wouldn’t have to try to stand in line to vote on Election Day.

We know something about how this would work because three states do it already. Oregon switched to vote by mail seventeen years ago. Washington state and Colorado followed.

One effect would be that far more people would vote. Barely 40 percent of registered voters turned out in Michigan last November. In Oregon, 70 percent voted – and that was considered low. Turnout in presidential elections has been higher than 80 percent.

Voting by mail makes sense. The question is: does Let’s Vote Michigan have a chance to get this on the ballot? Organizers will have six months to collect enough signatures. Since some are always invalid, their goal is half a million. That won’t be easy to do without big financial backing, but Jackie Pierce says flatly, “we’re going to do this.” So, we’ll see.

But I can’t help but thinking that instead of putting millions behind other proposals that are doomed to fail, unions and progressive groups might be better off funding vote by mail first.

After all, the larger the turnout, the better their candidates and causes tend to do.

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