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It's time to make no-reason absentee voting available to all Michiganders, without restrictions

By Jon Sherman | July 2, 2015

Election Day is the time eligible Michiganders are able to exercise one of their most fundamental American rights: the right to vote.

It's the time when voters have a chance to make their voices heard. But sometimes life gets in the way on Election Day. Maybe you're working a long shift and can't take time off to get to your polling place; maybe you don't have reliable transportation; maybe you or your kids get sick and you aren't able to leave the house. Sometimes we just don't have time to get to the polls, but that doesn't mean we don't deserve to have our voice heard.

Imagine that instead of having to plan ahead and wait in line at the polls on Election Day, you could cast a ballot without having to leave your home. It would certainly make voting more convenient and would help in building a democracy that represents all people in our state.

Current law restricts absentee ballots to Michigan voters who provide one of a limited number of accepted reasons, but not everyone has a reason that aligns with the current law and they shouldn't have to. Voting should be convenient. Twenty-seven other states, including Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio, already have no-reason absentee voting. It's time for our elected officials to make absentee voting accessible to all of Michigan's citizens.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and state Rep. Lisa Lyons introduced a bill recently that would allow any voter who wants an absentee ballot to get one. But it would require voters who want to vote absentee without a reason to go in person to their local clerk's office to request the ballot and present a photo ID. This would place an unnecessary burden on Michigan voters who seek an absentee ballot under the provisions in this new bill. All eligible Michigan citizens deserve to be treated equally and have equal access to an absentee ballot by mail and in person.

This bill is not an ideal or standard approach to no-reason absentee voting. No-reason absentee voting is designed to make voting more convenient; requiring voters to travel to their local clerk's office to request their absentee ballot defeats that purpose. Additionally, voters with a reason for voting absentee don't have to submit a copy of their photo ID when mailing in a request, and in-person voters on Election Day can sign an affidavit of identity if they forget their ID. There is no reason to single out this group of voters for different treatment.

However, given the state Legislature's hesitancy to modernize our voting procedures and adopt no-reason absentee voting in the past, we welcome Michigan's elected leaders' willingness to address this issue and offer more opportunities for voters to participate in our democracy. The Michigan House and Senate Elections Committee chairs must take the necessary next step to move this process forward by holding hearings for citizens to voice their concerns about the bill.

Ideally, the bill should be amended to permit all voters to utilize Michigan's absentee voting system. With some fixes, this proposal has the potential to be a good step forward in removing barriers to voting so that everyone has the chance to make their voices heard in our democracy.

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Jon Sherman is an attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network, counseling national and state groups on election law issues, advocating for election reforms, and litigating voting rights cases under the Constitution. Previously, he clerked for judges on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and worked with the ACLU Voting Rights Project in Atlanta.


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