Column: A chance to build on a legacy
I’ve been thinking about Richard Austin, Michigan’s first African-American secretary of state – and the first in the United States to create a program that allowed people to register to vote when getting a driver’s license. I have been reflecting on Austin’s achievements recently because the ACLU of Michigan, with a coalition of diverse partners, recently launched a ballot initiative to amend the Michigan Constitution to bring much-needed reforms to our state’s voting system. I hope others will join me in this effort.
Michigan’s younger generation needs to learn about Austin because he was a remarkable man. The son of a coal miner, Austin was born in Stouts Mountain, Alabama, in 1913. At the age of 11, following his father’s death, he and his family moved to Detroit, where he found work shining shoes while continuing to attend school. After graduating as class valedictorian from Detroit’s prestigious Cass Technical High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the Detroit Institute of Technology and then went on to become Michigan’s first African-American certified public accountant.
It was the first of many firsts for him.
Austin was the first African-American to be elected auditor for Wayne County. After that, in 1970, Michigan citizens made him our secretary of state. It was another first – in this case, the first time any African-American won a statewide race for an executive branch office. He was re-elected five times, making him the longest-serving secretary of state in Michigan history.
After Austin established, in 1975, the first program in the nation that allowed people to register to vote when getting their driver’s license, other states soon began adopting so-called “motor voter” laws. In 1993 – 18 years after Austin first fostered the concept – Congress made his innovation a national law.
“The voter registration law was very important to him, and he worked very hard on that,” said Edsell Stallings, a former chief assistant to Austin, following his death in 2001.
Under Austin, Michigan was a nationwide leader in making voting more accessible to citizens. His integrity was reflected in the issues he cared about, like access to the ballot, and that passion, combined with a gentle and kind soul, made him a great and effective man.
But Michigan has now fallen significantly behind other states. I am determined to help change that and that’s why I’m supporting the Promote the Vote campaign.
Among other things, the ballot measure will provide all registered voters access to an absentee ballot for any reason, allow citizens to register to vote in person with proof of residency up to and on Election Day, and automatically register them to vote when doing business at the Secretary of State’s office, unless they decline to do so.
Earlier this month, the Michigan Board of Canvassers approved the group’s petition form, and now an army of volunteers are gathering the 315,000 valid signatures we need to get this common-sense voting initiative on the November ballot.
Given everything Austin stood for, and the rich legacy he left behind, I have to think he would heartily approve of our efforts to ensure that all Michigan citizens — Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike – can readily be registered to vote, have their votes counted and voices heard. I hope others will support this effort that makes a voting system that works for all of us.
Carl Levin is a former U.S. Senator who represented Michigan for 35 years.