By Coner Segren
With fewer than three months until election day, and fewer than three weeks until mail-in ballots begin going out, Michigan voters still are facing a high degree of uncertainty around a national election that will be unprecedented in the modern era.
In an effort to educate potential voters, the group Neighborhoods Without Borders hosted a Zoom-based panel discussion Sept. 8 centered on the topic of voter suppression led by several community leaders and activists.
Titled “Voter Suppression in the age of COVID-19, Racism & a Chaotic Presidency,” the event was the first this year of the Tendaji Talks series, a program honoring Tendaji Ganges, an educator and community activist who died in 2015.
Panelists included Eileen Hayes from Michigan Faith in Action; Linda Hoff of the Flint Area League of Women Voters; Jane Richardson, a longtime activist and volunteer poll worker; and Hubert Roberts, a community activist and youth mentor. Neighborhoods Without Borders’ Donna Ullrich moderated.
Problems facing voters
Low-income and marginalized voters face the most adversity when going to cast a ballot. One of the biggest problems facing voters is lack of adequate infrastructure in Genesee County that makes voting easier, panelists suggested.
“Knowing where to vote, whether that building is really open or not, what door to get in, how to get through the brush that hasn’t been cut around it, some of the barriers are very practical ones of a city that has been on pause,” said Richardson, a longtime community activist speaking from her experience as a poll worker.
Even if voters find their polling place, they may struggle to find adequate parking.
“I see more incidents in parking lots than inside the voting precinct because people are fighting over decrepit parking lots,” said Hoff of the Flint Area League of Women Voters. Voters may have to park as much as three deep or may find themselves unable to leave because they have been blocked in, she noted.
One example of inadequate parking is the precincts at Mott Community College, where voters and poll workers may have to pay to park. Hoff said this was “in essence a poll tax, because as I’m going around poll watching during the day, I kept having to pay to park.”
In addition to infrastructure, transportation is a key issue. In Michigan, it is currently against the law to hire organizations to transport people to polling places unless they are physically disabled.
“Uber and Lyft were giving free rides to the polls in recent years, but they had to stop doing it in Michigan because they were getting in legal trouble,” Hoff said. The League of Women Voters in recent years attempted to push the MTA to make sure all precincts had regular bus transportation throughout the day, but committed only to driving senior citizens, which they have to do regardless.
Another barrier to voting is fees associated with getting stamps for mail-in ballots and also getting a new ID. “If your particular clerk doesn’t provide pre-paid postage, then the cost could be an inconvenience for people,” said Hayes of Michigan Faith in Action. Besides postage, Voters may be forced to get new IDs under the federal Real ID legislation.
Voters should also be wary of precinct challengers, the panel said. Poll challengers are people representing a political party who watch for irregularities during voting and tabulation of ballots.
However, there can be problems with precinct challengers potentially influencing voters and not following the guidelines for precinct challengers outlined by the state government. Asked what forms voting suppression can take, Hoff said, “Number one is precinct challengers, that’s the one we see most often, they’re there to intimidate.” Voters should understand that precinct challengers must have good cause to challenge the process, and also that it is illegal for precinct challengers to approach a voter directly.
There is also the problem of how poll workers and resources are distributed across the county. “Right now, my opinion, it looks like we have twice as many precincts in Flint as we need for the population,” Hoff said. “Some of our voting precincts are staffed by a minimum of three people… You have some precincts that have very good turnout and they’re a large precinct and so they might wait in line. In 2012, I remember people routinely waiting in line three hours, whereas others could come in, vote and leave.”
This creates an imbalance where workers in some precincts may be bored all day, while other workers may never have time even to use the restroom, as well as potentially discouraging voters due to long lines, she said.
The panelists addressed misinformation and how easily it can be spread. “Anybody can send you a text and say ‘I can send you an absentee ballot’ and you don’t know if that’s legit or not,” Hayes warned.
Hoff additionally warned about people potentially registering voters under false pretenses with no intent to actually file the paperwork. “I’ll ask, ‘Well how did you get registered?’ and they’ll say ‘Oh, someone was at the corner store doing registration,’” she said. “Now I tell people, your most direct path is online registration.”
Voters should not wait to cast their ballot, the panelists urged. Under Michigan’s current law, any ballot that arrives after 8 p.m. on election day will not be counted. In the Aug. 4 primary, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said 80 percent of the rejected 10,600 ballots were rejected because of arriving after election day or because of signature verification issues. To put that into perspective, the panel said, Donald Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was 10,704 votes.
Multiple bills currently stalled in the State Legislature would allow ballots to be counted up to six days after election day as long as the ballots are postmarked before Nov. 3, as well as allow mail-in ballots to begin being processed and verified the day before.
Getting registered and knowing your rights
The most important things Michigan voters can do is to get registered and to know their rights when they go to vote, Hayes and Hoff stressed. The most direct path to getting registered is to go online with your state ID number and you can be registered in less than two minutes.
Voters can also check the status of their ballot on the Michigan Secretary of State’s website to see if their ballot has been received and verified and is waiting to be counted.
“People need to know that they can keep track. People are concerned that if they vote absentee, that their ballot might somehow be lost or tampered with, asking ‘Can I trust the dropbox? Can I trust the system?’ Well they can track it online,” Hayes said.
Michigan law has also changed so that if you are not registered but decide on election day that you would like to vote, you can register the same day at City Hall.
If you attempt to vote on election day and poll workers cannot find proof that you are registered, it is your right to request a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot is a ballot cast by a person whose eligibility cannot be proven at the polls on election day.
“People need to know they have a right to a provisional ballot, so if there’s a question you insist on a provisional ballot. That’s the number one message we need to get out to Flint residents,” Hoff said.
If a voter believes they made a mistake on their ballot, they also have the right to contact the Secretary of State and ask that their ballot be spoiled and a new one will be mailed to them. In-person voters can also request that a poll worker spoil their ballot and they be given a clean one if they make a mistake on election day.
Overall, what the panelists stressed most was that every vote matters. To drive the point home, the panel cited a study by the Poor People’s Campaign which said that even a one percent increase in turnout among low-income voters would have exceeded the margin of victory in the 2016 election.
“Democracy won’t work if we don’t make it work in all ways,” Richardson said.
Other facts and helpful agencies
Voter ID fees can be waived for certain eligible citizens. For those receiving public assistance through things like the Family Independence Program, Social Security and State Disability, and Social Security Disability can get fee waivers. Also, individuals who are homeless and 65 and older.
For any Flint residents wary of seeing police at polling stations, know that it is illegal for police to use voting as a means to capture someone.
Laws against electioneering make it illegal to wear paraphernalia or clothing that endorses or criticizes a political cause or candidate within 100ft of the polling station. So, wearing a “Dump Trump” shirt or “Make America Great Again” hat at the polls is illegal.
Homelessness or housing insecurity is not a barrier to voting in Michigan. Homeless voters can choose an address that best suites them to sign on the back of their voter ID. “I don’t care what you say your address is. The soup kitchen is your address, the corner down the street is your address, the shelter is your address. That’s your address and that’s what you can use to vote.”
Michigan is in need of poll workers, especially young people. Poll workers make 160 dollars a day, plus 20 for training. Anyone age 16 and older can sign up to be a poll worker through the Secretary of State’s website.
The panelists also recommend writing and calling your representatives urging them to pass the legislation allowing early ballot processing and receiving ballots after election day if they are postmarked. “This is legislation anyone can do, start bombarding [your legislators] saying I want you to fix it, change it, do it, now,” said Hayes.
If you are interested in being a poll observer, agencies that do training include Michigan Faith in Action, League of Women Voters, and Voters Not Politicians.
For information about your ballot, registration status and other election related questions, visit Michigan.gov/vote or Michiganvoting.org.
Neighborhoods Without Borders aims to help Flint area residents learn about their diverse neighbors, local issues caused by racism, and the impact of racism on neighbors, as described at https://fpl.info/tendaji-talks/.
EVM Staff Writer Coner Segren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.