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Friday, August 22, 2014
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Published: Friday, 5/2/2014

COMMENTARY

Here’s a vote for Michigan as a poor conductor of elections

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
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LANSING — Remember the nightmarish days of the Florida recount after the disputed 2000 presidential election?

Poll workers squinting at marks on punch cards. “Butterfly ballots” that caused people to vote for the wrong candidate.

The episode was an embarrassing failure of democracy. At the time, Michigan election officials were pretty smug.

Back then, a spokesman for the Michigan secretary of state told me there had been a number of irregularities far in the past. But those had been cleaned up after a couple of extremely close gubernatorial elections in the 1950s. And Detroit had its own disastrous experience with punch cards in 1970.

However, Michigan was thought to be clean, modern, and state-of-the art efficient in its voting. Except, as it turns out, it isn’t.

“Most states have modernized registration and/​or voting in the last few years,” said Sharon Dolente, director of a reform alliance called the Michigan Election Coalition. “Michigan hasn’t.”

With a brief and effective PowerPoint presentation, Ms. Dolente, a Detroit attorney, shows the evidence. Michigan is the sixth-worst state in the country for how long people have to wait in line to vote in a presidential election: 20 minutes-plus, on average. California voters’ average wait in 2012 was no more than five minutes.

Michigan voters do not all suffer equally, however. Ms. Dolente showed me a picture of the lines in one inner-city precinct.

“There, they had to wait four and a half hours,” she said. Many working people cannot leave their jobs that long. Others may not be able to leave their children or endure standing in line.

What’s more, she added, as schools close and Detroit’s population shrinks, it gets harder to find poll workers and suitable locations for polling places.

These aren’t the only problems Michigan voters face. Most states have early voting or “no-fault” absentee voting, meaning anyone can have an absentee ballot who wants one. Ohio has both.

Michigan, however, has no early voting. The only Michiganians who are eligible to vote absentee are those who will be out of town on Election Day, are 60 years old or older, or are physically unable to get to the polls.

Nor is the state’s voting technology as magnificent as some might believe. Jan BenDor, the statewide coordinator for the Michigan Election Reform Alliance (MERA), believes the commonly used optical-scan tabulators are often inaccurate.

“The credibility of Michigan voting results is endangered by a system relying on aging machines utilizing unreliable technology,” she said in a report, “Facing Michigan’s Election Cliff.”

To illustrate, MERA quietly conducted hand-counted audits of elections in Michigan’s Allegan County in 2008 and 2012. They found error rates in counting that were almost as high as half a percentage point.

That could easily be more than enough to produce the wrong winner in many close elections, including Michigan’s race for governor in 1990 or attorney general in 2013.

MERA is urging a return to hand-counted ballots, at least until a better system can be devised.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Ms. BenDor said. “Everyone has a stake in having the most accurate election counts possible. The current system simply cannot be trusted.”

Ms. Dolente agrees. “There’s a lot to be done at both the local and statewide level,” she said, to make elections work better.

Some of this will require legislation. And while the reform coalition may not think of this as a partisan issue, Michigan Republicans are unlikely to be eager to do anything to help boost turnout in urban and minority areas.

Ms. Dolente is likely to be viewed as suspect. She was previously a “voter protection director” for the Obama campaign.

Unless something changes, all people may legally be equal in Michigan, but for voting, some places and precincts and voters will continue to be far more equal than others.

● Re-energized Democrats? Though Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder clearly has disillusioned some voters, the odds against beating him in November have seemed pretty steep.

No Michigan governor has failed in a bid for a second term since 1962. Democratic nominee-in-waiting Mark Schauer was seen as competent, but perhaps lacking in charisma.

However, Democrats were stirred by a vigorous speech Mr. Schauer gave at the party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Detroit last Saturday. Mr. Schauer vowed to increase the minimum wage, “repeal right to work for less,” and “wake up each and every day fighting for the middle class.”

Former state Attorney General Frank Kelley, who is often seen as the godfather of the modern Michigan Democratic Party, said: “I now really think [Mr. Schauer] can win if he gets the money he’ll need.”

That may take some doing. But one sign of potential trouble for Mr. Snyder: Polls show that his rival is close behind him — even though most of those polled still don’t know who Mr. Schauer is.

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.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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