Dem group files third voting rights lawsuit, this one targeting Benson

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Democratic group has filed a third voting rights lawsuit against the state of Michigan, targeting Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson about an automatic registration law.

The lawsuit argues that the treatment by Michigan's automatic registration law of people under the age of 17 ½ and the Legislature’s limits on proof of residency at the time of registration constitute undue burdens on voters' constitutional rights.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks with media after announcing the opening of the application process for the independent citizens redistricting commission on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

The suit is the third and final one from the Priorities USA super political action committee in about two weeks seeking to expand on the voters’ rights initiative approved by voters in November.

The most recent lawsuit focuses on restrictions on young voters, arguing that the automatic registration rules and proof of residency requirements could exclude swaths of young people from the polls.

“Young people deserve a free and fair registration process that does not limit their access to exercising their right to vote,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA.

Benson’s office had not yet been served the lawsuit Friday evening.

State Republican officials have criticized previous Priorities USA lawsuits as attempting to promote voter fraud and stripping election security measures. 

The first Priorities USA lawsuit against Benson in late October was over the elimination of absentee votes because of discrepancies between a voter’s signature and other documents filed with election officials.

The second against Attorney General Dana Nessel asked the court to rule unconstitutional Michigan laws that criminalize the busing of voters to polling locations and the assistance of voters in submitting applications for absentee ballots.

The lawsuit filed Friday involves a secretary of state policy that stops branch employees from automatically registering 16-year-olds to vote when they obtain their first driver’s license. The suit seeks a requirement that would automatically register those drivers when they reach the age of 17 1/2.

“Instead, these prospective voters must either separately register to vote or further conduct business with the secretary of state’s office after turning 17.5, when they will be eligible to vote,” the lawsuit said.

The litigation also challenges a change the Legislature made last year to the same-day voter registration initiative included in Proposal 3. 

The GOP-led Legislature’s lame duck addition to the proposal at the end of 2018 would require a voter to prove his or her residency with a state driver’s license, state ID or a combination of an affidavit and utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or “other government document.” 

Lawmakers also required voters to register at the clerk's office, instead of at a polling location. 

Young voters are less likely to have identification with current addresses or a utility bill or paycheck, the lawsuit said. They are also likely to be more “confused” by the proof of residency requirements “due to their lack of information about the voting process and limited to no experience navigating election processes.”

“This confusion is likely to have a chilling effect on these voters’ attempts at voter registration in the 14 days before and on election day,” the lawsuit said.

There’s no compelling state interest for the requirement, Priorities USA said, because “there is no evidence of systemic voter fraud in Michigan.”

“The challenged provisions directly harm Priorities USA by frustrating its mission of and efforts to engage young voters in the political process by making it more difficult to register and thus to turn out young voters,” the lawsuit said.

A Michigan Elections Department audit of mismatched Detroit vote totals in the 2016 presidential election to “an abundance of human errors” by precinct workers but not "pervasive" voter fraud.

A separate statewide review found 31 Michiganians appeared to vote twice — once by absentee ballot and once in person on Election Day. The issue with those voters was referred to Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office for criminal investigation, but no one was ever prosecuted.