College Democrats sue over 'restrictive' Michigan voting laws

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
College Democrats want to make it easier for young people to vote.

Lansing — Michigan voting laws unconstitutionally discriminate against young residents by making it more difficult for them to participate in elections, according to a federal lawsuit filed by a national law firm on behalf of College Democrats less than 10 weeks before the Nov. 6 election.

For young people who go to college but retain a close connection to their home town, Michigan laws “make registering and voting unduly confusing” and “place nearly insurmountable barriers between many young voters and their fundamental right to vote,” the suit claims.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a named defendant in the complaint along with Elections Director Sally Williams, said her office was “surprised by what is seemingly an odd lawsuit,” noting the address-match law was litigated nearly two decades ago in federal court.

The complaint targets two-Republican sponsored statutes, including a 1999 law introduced by then-state Sen. Mike Rogers of Brighton that requires matching addresses for voter registration and driver’s licenses. It effectively prevents college students from voting at school unless they change their permanent address on their license.

A separate 2004 law requires residents to vote in person for the first time if they registered by mail or third-party registration drive. This identity protection safeguard, critics say, can prevent college students from voting by absentee ballot in their first election.

In concert, the laws can confuse young voters and unfairly deny them the right to vote, according to the lawsuit. “‘As a consequence, young voters in Michigan vote at very low rates: the difference between overall turnout and youth turnout is now larger in Michigan than in any other state.”  

Michigan residents must register to vote by Oct. 9 to participate in the general election. Plaintiffs are expected to seek some form of preliminary relief to lift restrictions on college students for this election.

“Separating a person’s address for voting and licensing purposes would cause confusion and lead to different addresses for people who thought they had changed both,” said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams. “College students can easily change their address to one on or near campus at their city, township or county clerk’s office as well as at any Secretary of State office.”

But three local and county elections clerks praised the new lawsuit. They included  Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat whose mother, Dianne Byrum, opposed the 1999 address law in the state Senate and lost a congressional race to Rogers the following year by 111 votes in the 8th District, which includes Michigan State University.

“These restrictions have had a devastating impact on the ability of student voters to exercise their right to vote for more than a decade,” Barb Byrum said in a statement.

Rogers couldn't be reached, but he defended the law in 2013 as a move to stop giving special treatment to college students.

"Most other people — traveling nurses, traveling salespeople — they either vote where their driver's license is or they get an absentee ballot," Rogers told The Detroit News.

Robert Joerg, President of the Michigan Federation of College Democrats and a senior at Albion College, is an Ohio resident who is not personally allowed to vote here. But he’s helped organize registration drives and said he has seen the difficulty fellow students have had trying to vote in Michigan.

“I have several friends who didn’t vote in the 2016 election, for instance, because they had registered back home but weren’t going to drive two hours, on a Tuesday, during classes,” Joerg said. “The cost-benefit analysis was pretty negative for them.”

Attorneys from the Perkins Coie law firm in Washington, D.C., filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court in Detroit on behalf of College Democrats at the University of Michigan, College Democrats at Michigan State University and the state federation.

Michigan voting laws “target and burden young voters in a way that is as restrictive as anywhere in the country,” said lead attorney Marc Elias.

Perkins Coie, which often represents Democrats in election law cases, has also challenged a New Hampshire law that restricts college student voting and won a Florida case over a state law that prohibited early voting centers from being located on university campuses.

Rogers retired from Congress in 2014. In a state Senate debate on the address match law, Rogers said it was a “slap in the face of democracy” to allow students register to vote in one place “and live in another.”

Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, signed the 2004 law that continued the requirement for voters who register by mail to cast their first ballot in person and brought Michigan into compliance with other federal voting rules.

But in a signing statement, she noted the requirement was “especially burdensome for Michigan college students living away from home” and encouraged the Legislature to make future amendments allowing additional methods to prove the identity of a first-time voter prior to an election.

Michigan is a leader at registering voters at motor vehicle offices, Woodhams said. As secretary of state the past eight years, Johnson has sent a mobile office to college campuses across the state each election cycle to answer questions and register voters at their preferred address, he said.

“The timing of this lawsuit seems suspect," Woodhams said, "given it comes only a few weeks until the general election."

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