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Forget Voter Registration Drives. Get Michigan’s Registered Voters Interested in Elections.

by Rob Smith

Michigan Rising (formerly the Committee to Recall Rick Snyder) tried twice to collect enough signatures to put the question of whether to recall Governor Rick Snyder on the ballot. Twice the group failed. Such signature drives are monster efforts, as we saw in Wisconsin, and rarely successful—again, as we saw in Wisconsin voters’ refusal to recall the state’s Republican governor. I read Michigan Rising’s latest pitch for donations sent out the evening of August 16th. In that email, the subject line of which was “Elections matter, votes count,” I read that Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate Pete Hoekstra “is calling for the repeal of the Constitutional Amendment passed in 1913 that made Senate seats elected, not appointed offices.” The email goes on to say, “As you may know, Michigan Rising is busy with a Voter Registration Drive and we need your help to keep candidates whose ideas will make Michigan a less democratic state OUT of office. Please donate $10.00 so that we can show the likes of Hoekstra what democracy in action can do.”

Voter registration drives are classic progressive grassroots activation efforts. Voter registration drives around the country are credited with helping President Obama end up in the White House in 2008. In 2008 the Detroit Free Press published an article that pointed out Michigan had a record number of registered voters, “7,470,764 voters registered before the Oct. 6 deadline to vote in the Nov. 4 election.” Between January and October 2008, over 328,000 Michigan residents signed up to vote! Last year, Crain’s Detroit Business reported on the subject of voter registration from a disturbing angle. The article is titled, “Detroit has more registered voters than residents over 18, Census finds.” While you might shake your head and mutter a quick “WTF?” this is not a “Detroit-only” problem. Crain’s reported:

There are about 560,000 registered voters in the city of Detroit. But the 2010 U.S. Census found only 523,430 Detroiters over 18, according to Data Driven Detroit.*

So that’s a problem.

Detroit’s voter rolls have been plagued by duplicate, incorrect or invalid registrations for a long time, and bringing the lists into compliance is a Herculean task.

“Because of the National Voter Registration Act (of 1983), we are required to hold onto and include in our count those who more than likely be should cancelled because they have moved, relocated and the like, or there has been no activity for a number of years,” City Clerk Janice Winfrey said. “However, we have to hold them for two consecutive federal elections. So after this federal election, by the beginning of 2013, we’ll have nearly 30,000 we can cancel.”

In other circumstances, federal law only allows local election officials to purge a name from the voter rolls when notified by the individual or a reliable source of information (such as a death certificate) that the person is no longer eligible to vote in that district — or if a voter registration card is returned as undeliverable by the U.S. Postal Service.

Detroit Director of Elections Daniel Baxter said that his department has been working with the health department and local newspapers to get accurate information about deaths. (Neither dying nor moving automatically purges a voter from the rolls, unless, in the case of the latter, the former resident receives a new driver’s license – and voter registration – in another jurisdiction.)

In Detroit, a highly transient population complicates matters, Winfrey said.

The Crain’s article points out something else, as well:

Detroit – and the state of Michigan – do have high rates of voter registration,’ said Vince Keenan, executive director of nonprofit voter education resource Publius.org, thanks to the national voter registration act, which allows voters to register while applying for a driver’s license or state-issued identificaiton card.

Nationally, according to a July 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report, 71 percent of Americans eligible to vote are registered—146 million people. That’s down from 72.1 percent in 2004, but up from 69.5 percent in 2000. The U.S. Census Bureau points out that “Historically, the likelihood that an individual will actually vote once registered has been high, and 2008 was no exception. Of all registered individuals, 90 percent reported voting, up slightly from 89 percent in the 2004 presidential election.” Registering to vote is the Ticket to the Voting Show. According to a 2012 Census Bureau report on voting, registered voters aged 35-54 are almost 3.5 times more likely to vote than registered voters between the ages of 18-24. In 2008, 4.48 million people (67.8 percent of Michigan’s registered voters) went to the polls, making the 2008 Michigan turnout among one of the highest in the country, topped by only a handful of other states. As far as voting goes, Midwest represents with the highest percentage of overall voter turnout of any region in the country.

Why don’t the tens of millions of people in the U.S. who are unregistered register to vote? The 2012 Census Bureau report reveals most (46 percent) say: “I’m not interested in the election or involved in politics.” In Michigan, according to the Secretary of State, 98 percent of the voting age population is already registered, an all-time high, and proof positive that the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, better known as the Motor-Voter act is doing its job. The NVRA was passed to make it easier to register to vote and update voter registration records. If you need more evidence that NVRA was a great piece of legislation, the Census Bureau’s July 2012 report shows in 2008 21 percent of people registered to vote when obtaining or renewing a driver’s license. Another 21 percent registered at a local government office, such as a city’s clerk’s office. Just 6.1 percent of people reported signing up at a registration booth, like the ones used during voter registration drives.

Do we need to keep Republican Pete Hoekstra out of the U.S. Senate? Absolutely, in my opinion. Do we need to register the 250,000 unregistered voters in Michigan? Yes, Ma’am. Is it important to get at least 70 percent of Michigan’s currently registered voters to the polls this November? High voter turnout in November is cri-ti-cal. I’m not arguing against voter registration drives. There are 146 million registered voters, total, in the U.S., and 30 million unregistered voters—22 million of whom are eligible to vote. These people need to register. I do wonder why Michigan Rising, in a state with 98 percent voter registration, and one of the highest voter turnouts nation-wide, is asking for money. The August 16th email I read is signed with organizers’ first names only. When I went to the group’s web site to try and contact them, the contact form was broken. I could track them down on Facebook and Twitter, of course. However, for the second time the Super PAC missed the deadline to file financial disclosure forms. The first missed deadline cost the group $750 in fines, paid with donations from people who, I imagine never thought their $10 gifts would be paying off a hefty penalty. The most current financial disclosure forms were due July 25th and Michigan Rising missed that deadline, as well. A Super PAC that can’t account for donations in a timely and accurate manner is a Super PAC that shouldn’t be sending out emails for money to do anything.

I think the Census Bureau data gathered from Michigan and U.S. voters present a strategic opportunity: Stop focusing on voter registration drives such as the one Michigan Rising wants the public to fund. Let the Motor-Voter law and government registration offices do their magic. Instead, work to get Michigan voters who are already registered engaged in local, state and national politics and elections. The Michigan Democratic Party should partner with county Democratic organizations to develop voter education and engagement strategies that are aimed at boosting the state’s voter turnout to 75 percent in November. That would put Michigan at the top of the list of state’s with high voter turn-out, and keep the state solidly Democratic and for Obama in 2012. 

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