State error prompts voter cancellation notices

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Hundreds of Michigan voters were mistakenly sent “notices of cancellation” last month challenging their voter registration status, according to the Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office, which is taking steps to correct the error.

Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas told The Detroit News “a few hundred” voters who left Michigan but later returned were flagged in the Interstate Crosscheck system, which 29 states use to identify fraud and clean up their voter rolls.

The bureau alerted local clerks on Friday and is preparing to send letters to affected voters telling them to disregard any notices they received.

“Nobody has been canceled, and nobody’s voting rights from 2016 would be affected by this,” Thomas said. “In fact, none of these people could have been affected until January 2019 at the earliest.”

The elections bureau sent to municipal clerks on Jan. 13 an Interstate Crosscheck list that included the names of residents it said had voted in another state as recently as November 2014, as verified by matching several elements from voter records, including the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.

“This information constitutes ‘reliable information’ that the voter has moved out of your jurisdiction and you must send ‘Notices of Cancellation’ to the voters on the attached list who are currently registered,” said the state email.

Morgan Cole, a 29-year old who has lived in Michigan since late 2012 after returning from Washington, D.C., received a mid-January notice from the East Lansing city clerk questioning whether she still lived at her current address.

“If this reply card is not returned and you do not vote by the second November general election following this notice, your voter registration will be canceled,” it read.

Cole said she almost missed the notice because “it looked like junk mail.” But after reading it, she was alarmed because she has been registered in East Lansing for more than two years and has regularly voted there, she said. Her husband, who moved with her to Lansing and then East Lansing in August 2013, did not receive the same notice.

“Nothing added up, so I instantly thought someone had stolen my identity,” said Cole, who called her municipal clerk on Jan. 19 and shared her concerns. She filled out the address verification form but has not heard back.

“I don’t really know what’s going on, still,” she said.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, who is aware of Cole’s case but was not directly involved with Interstate Crosscheck notices sent out by municipal clerks, criticized the Bureau of Elections for “creating additional confusion” for voters.

“I’m not sure if there’s been turnover or what is going on at the Bureau of Elections, but it needs to be cleaned up and it needs to be rectified immediately,” Byrum said. “The bureau is in charge of making sure people are afforded the opportunity to vote, and when mistakes like this are made, they either confuse the voters, or quite frankly, disenfranchise them.”

An email obtained by The Detroit News shows the bureau acknowledged its error to municipal clerks in late January, telling them to discontinue cancellation notices until they received a new Interstate Crosscheck list. If contacted by concerned voters, clerks were instructed to have them complete the verification form and to reinstate their previous registration status.

The voters who were “inadvertently” flagged in the Crosscheck system “constitute a very small percentage of voters on the list we sent,” department analyst Julia Veale wrote in an email. “To be very clear, each voter on the list we sent you did move out of state and did register to vote in another state at one time.”

At least one municipal clerk, in Acme Township, sent local voters a “30-day notice of cancellation,” stirring fears that the registration error could affect the 2016 election cycle.

But Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said the form used in Acme Township, outside Traverse City, has been obsolete since 2009 and should not have been used. The state-recommended form told voters they have two years from November to verify their status by participating in an election.

The state will send disregard letters to effected voters this week, Woodhams said.