Commentary: Voter question overstepped law
Source: Detroit Free Press
By Rich Robinson
Detroit Free Press guest writer
A funny thing happened to me when I went to vote in our Aug. 7 primary election. The ballot application form I was given included a question asking whether or not I was a citizen of the United States.
I'm guessing that almost anyone who reads this saw the same question.
My reaction to the citizenship question may have been different from yours -- I refused to respond to it -- but I assure you I wasn't reacting out of rebelliousness. I did not respond because I believed that there was no statutory authority for the question.
I follow elections and campaign finances for a living, and I was 99% certain that Gov. Rick Snyder had vetoed legislation to put this citizenship reaffirmation on our ballot applications. It seemed to me on Tuesday morning -- and still does now -- that faithfulness to the rule of law required me to refuse to respond.
When I told the precinct worker my position, he told me that I'd have to respond if I wanted to vote. I chose not to vote under those circumstances.
When I reached my office, I called the Bureau of Elections and confirmed that the bill had been vetoed. Then I called my city clerk's office and reported that I had been denied a ballot based on my refusal to respond to a question for which there was no statutory authority.
I've been told since that the citizenship question was merely an exercise of administrative procedure. The Department of State has a right to design its forms as it sees fit.
Really? They can unilaterally design a form that is not anchored to a law and deny me a vote if I won't respond to it? This certainly causes me to wonder: What's the next question going to be?
As Election Day unfolded, I heard from voters across Michigan. Some had an experience like mine: They were told they had to answer the question to get a ballot. Some were told not to worry about it. Some got ballot applications that didn't have the citizenship question.
By midday, I heard that the Department of State's instructions to election administrators and precinct workers were revised. If a registered voter refused to answer the citizenship question, they were to be informed that only citizens can vote -- a de facto warning to noncitizens against voting -- and the applicant was to be given a ballot.
I may not be a brilliant administrator, but I have a very hard time understanding how any legitimate administrative procedure can be applied so irregularly and retracted in the middle of the stream, so to speak. I believe this administrative procedure was an inappropriate government overreach with no basis in law.
By the end of the day, I was able to go back to the precinct where I've been voting for the last 13 years and exercise my fundamental right as a citizen. But what if I'd had to leave town after my first attempt to vote and I'd chosen to be loyal to the rule of law rather than the whim of administrative procedure? That's no small matter.
It frustrates me to no end that Secretary of State Ruth Johnson spends her energy and prestige crushing mole hills like noncitizen voting and in-person voter impersonation -- problems for which there is virtually no evidence -- but she ignores mountains of laundered money in our campaign finance system. I guess we have very different views on accountability in elections.
Rich Robinson is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
(c) 2012, Detroit Free Press