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Benson plans college voter push to resolve lawsuit

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Lansing — Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Wednesday announced plans for a college-age voter participation push expected to resolve a lawsuit College Democrats filed last year over “restrictive” Michigan voting laws.

Initial steps include the creation of a website dedicated to advice for first-time voters and college students, a written update for local clerks in college towns suggesting voter registration drives and more frequent deployment of a mobile SOS office to campuses.

“Going away to school shouldn’t complicate a student’s ability to vote,” Benson said in a statement. “Michigan has made great strides recently in improving access for all voters, and this is just the beginning of our work to ensure college-age voters have the information and opportunities they need to vote as engaged citizens.”

The Michigan Federation of College Democrats and campus groups in Ann Arbor and East Lansing sued Republican then-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson in the run-up to the 2018 election, alleging a combination of GOP-sponsored laws created “nearly insurmountable” barriers to voting for many young people.

College Democrats targeted two statutes, including a 1999 law that requires matching addresses for voter registration and driver’s licenses, which prevents college students from voting at school unless they changed their permanent address.

That law will stand, but another part of the complaint was rendered moot by a voter-approved ballot initiative allowing same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee voting, making it easier for college students to vote in their hometown from campus.

College Democrats alleged disenfranchisement by a 2004 law requiring voters to vote in person for the first time if they registered by mail, but Benson told local clerks in February that Proposal 3 made that law unenforceable.

The constitutional amendment “provides all Michigan voters the right once registered to vote an absent voter ballot without giving a reason,” said spokesman Shawn Starkey. “Accordingly, the secretary determined that the must-vote-in-person requirement, which prohibits some registered voters from voting an absent voter ballot, was unenforceable.”

Court filings indicate Benson and attorneys for College Democrats had been working toward a settlement, and her office anticipates the new initiative will resolve the case.

“It is our understanding that upon receipt of this letter, counsel will take steps to dismiss the pending lawsuit without prejudice,” Assistant Attorney General Heather Meingast wrote in a memorandum of understanding letter to plaintiff attorney Marc Elias.

Elias, a partner at the high-powered Perkins Coie law firm in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

As part of the initiative, the Secretary of State Department will make “best efforts” to deploy its mobile branch office for on-campus visits to the state’s 15 largest colleges and universities in even-numbered election years. It will also make “reasonable efforts” to stop at or near private schools.

Benson’s office will also “encourage friendly rivalry/competition” among campuses by tracking and recording the number of students who register to vote through the mobile office visits, according the Meingast letter.

The dedicated website will include instructions for voter registration, an explanation of proof of residency requirements required to vote if registering within 14 days of an election and an explanation of the “one address rule” prescribed by the 1999 state law.