Monday, May 21, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan primary further clouds citizenship-voting issue

DETROIT -- Michigan's primary election this week didn't attract much attention or draw many voters. But it sparked a huge controversy that had nothing to do with any candidates on the ballot.

The post-election focus largely was on Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who at first insisted that voters answer a question about whether they are citizens, then retracted that order midway through primary election day, causing confusion.

Some voters went home in a huff, Democrats denounced Secretary Johnson's "disregard for the law," and partisan and nonpartisan groups are talking about finding grounds to sue.

The secretary's actions were especially baffling, since you have to be a citizen to register legally to vote, and because her fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Snyder, last month vetoed a measure that would have required voters to answer the citizenship question.

The governor said he rejected the bill because it could have caused confusion at the polls. He said the goals should be making it easier, not harder, for citizens to vote. Confusion is exactly what happened.

The election results themselves were mainly predictable. As expected, Republicans chose former congressman Pete Hoekstra to wage an uphill battle to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is seeking a third term in November.

Statewide, the oddest result came when the normally Republican 11th U.S. House District, a collection of mainly affluent Detroit suburbs, was left with a Tea Party GOP nominee who wants to close all foreign military bases, abolish the direct election of U.S. senators, and investigate the Federal Reserve System. Whether the national party or voters will support Kerry Bentivolio remains to be seen, but the primary result seemed to make the race competitive for the Democratic nominee, Syed Taj, a former chief physician at a local hospital.

Dr. Taj, a native of India, is a mainstream Democrat and a popular township trustee. What's not known is whether the district's voters will be comfortable with his unusual name, lilting accent, and Muslim faith.

Elsewhere, statewide primary results probably left Democrats with a slightly improved chance of retaking the Michigan House, though gaining 10 seats won't be easy. Former Lenawee County state Sen. Jim Berryman (D., Adrian) is one of the best-positioned nominees to knock off a GOP incumbent.

After an intense campaign, metropolitan Detroit voters agreed to tax themselves to save the world-class Detroit Institute of Arts.

But while the primary is over, the controversy over the secretary of state's actions may be just beginning. On primary day, voters complained to media about the citizenship question.

Rich Robinson, president of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, was denied a ballot at his East Lansing precinct after he refused to answer the question.

Jeanne Barron had a similar experience in Kalamazoo Township. She said she was falsely told she had to answer the question or she would not be allowed to vote.

At other polling places, voters apparently were not required to declare citizenship.

Finally, at noon, longtime state elections director Christopher Thomas sent an email bulletin to local clerks changing the policy. "If a voter refuses to fill in either yes or no … read this statement: 'Under the Michigan Constitution and election laws, you must be a citizen of the United States in order to vote.' Then issue a ballot to the voter." However, according to several sources, many clerks never got that email.

Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer said: "[Secretary] Johnson's actions as our state's top elections official are disgraceful. She tells election workers to further deny ballots to qualified voters in direct violation of Michigan law."

Mr. Robinson, who is nonpartisan, returned to his precinct and voted after the rule was changed. "I had to stand for the rule of law," he said. "Not even an elected constitutional executive can promulgate laws ad hoc to deprive citizens of their rights."

Jocelyn Benson, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, went further. "Our coalition of nonpartisan groups -- the Michigan Election Coalition -- is collecting statements from voters and exploring a few legal theories," she said. She confirmed she was thinking of taking legal action against the secretary of state.

Ms. Benson is not nonpartisan. She is the Democrat whom Secretary Johnson defeated for the post in 2010.

But that doesn't mean the secretary of state won't face legal complications. Ms. Johnson says she will again insist on the citizenship question in November, when nearly four times the number of voters who showed up on primary day are apt to descend on the polls.

When the governor predicted that a citizenship question would lead to confusion at the polls, he was truly a prophet.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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