Appeals court upholds voter registration, identification rules

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Michigan Court of Appeals panel sided with the state Legislature on Monday, upholding a rule that would require voters without a driver's license or personal identification to vote a challenged ballot. 

The case was a consolidation of two similar arguments brought by voting rights group Priorities USA and ballot committee Promote the Vote, which promoted the voter-approved voting rights initiative known as Proposal 3 in 2018. The case had been dismissed June 24 by the state Court of Claims before it was appealed to the Court of Appeals. 

"...the Legislature's definition of proof of residency is a reasonable means to prevent voter fraud," Judge Patrick Meter wrote in a 2-1 decision that was joined by Judge Michael Gadola. Meter was appointed by Republican former Gov. John Engler and Gadola by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. 

Judge Amy Ronayne Krause, an appointee of Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, wrote a dissent objecting to part of the majority ruling. 

After the passage of Proposal 3 in 2018, the Legislature defined proof of identity and proof of residency for those registering within 14 days of an election to limit it to a driver's license or state identification card. Anyone without those forms of identification could provide a combination of an affidavit and utility bills, bank statement or paycheck, but would have to vote a challenged ballot.

The voting rights groups said such a practice was an undue burden on voters.

The groups also challenged Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's practice of automatically registering new licensees only if they were more than 17 and half years old and doing business with the Secretary of State office. 

The Court of Claims dismissed the groups' arguments, arguing that the Benson was only following the state Constitution and the Legislature's laws supplemented the provisions in the ballot initiative instead of burdening them. 

The groups challenged the Court of Claims ruling, but the appellate panel ruling Monday largely agreed with it.

"...The Legislature did not provide a narrow list of documents that individuals who register to vote int he 14-day period must present as proof of residency," according to the majority opinion.  

The provision that some voters use a challenged ballot is not a burden on their right to vote, Meter wrote.

" individual whose ballot must be marked as a challenged ballot casts either a regular ballot or an absent voter ballot," according to the decision. "The ballot is merely marked so that it can later be identified if an election is contested."

Ronayne Krause agreed that Benson's automatic registration policy regarding individuals over the age of 17 and a half was in keeping with the state Constitution, but disagreed with the conclusion regarding the Legislature's proof of residency rules. 

Proposal 3 "severely curtailed" the Legislature's power to regulate voting and registration, making any actions by the chambers subject "to a higher degree of scrutiny," Ronayne Krause wrote.

In that sense, the Legislature should be more careful about the differences between proof of identity and proof of residency, perhaps allowing more latitude on the latter, she wrote. 

"...Proof of identity is qualitatively different from proof of residency, and as a consequence, the Legislature is unconstitutionally burdening the right to register to vote upon supplying proof of residency," she wrote.