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ACLU Stops Illegal Voter Purges in Michigan

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ACLU Stops Illegal Voter Purges in Michigan


Voting in Michigan isn't easy or even possible for some.  ACLU's
fight for voting rights moves forward with a big win.  Image cc

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Secretary of State's "One Stop Voter Caging" Ends

Michael Collins

Judge Karen Nelson Moore of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an order that ends the Michigan Secretary of State's unlawful purging of voters from the registration rolls (court decision).  The decision also orders Michigan officials to restore the registration status of 5,500 identified citizens who had been unlawfully removed previously.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought suit for the Michigan State Conference of NAACP Branches, plaintiff, and plaintiff-appellees the ACLU of Michigan and the U.S. Student Association Foundation.  Attorneys from both the national and Michigan ACLU are working on the case which is expected to be appealed.

State election officials followed Michigan code by purging any voter whose voter identification mailing was returned as "undeliverable" by the postal service.   The program began in January 2006.  It has a disproportionate impact on college students and minorities.

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Michael J. Steinberg, Legal Director of the Michigan ACLU said,

"We are thrilled that thousands of voters who were illegally removed from the voter rolls will be able to vote in next week's historic presidential election.  Disenfranchisement undermines our democracy and the court decision restores a measure confidence in our electoral system."

Steinberg was positive about the broader impact of the ACLU action:

"We have reason to believe that many more people will be restored to the voter rolls as the litigation moves forward after the election.  For example, Detroit officials have said that nearly 30,000 voters are removed from the rolls each year because their voter ID cards are returned as undeliverable."

Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lee Land, a Republican from Grand Rapids, is one of her party's top vote getters but she's selective about who is allowed to vote.  Michigan law has a special twist to voter registration.  The state receives a voter's registration, enters it into a Qualified Voter File, and then sends out a voter identification card.  The law states:

"[I]f the 'original' voter identification card is not returned to the clerk's office, its receipt is presumed and an applicant becomes a registered voter in the State of Michigan." Defs.' Mot. for Stay at 5-6; see also Mich. Comp. Laws S.S. 168.499(3), 168.500c.  If, however, "the original voter identification card is returned to the clerk by the post office as nondeliverable, the clerk shall reject the registration and send the individual a notice of rejection."  (court decision)

This is the target of the court case brought by the ACLU.  College students, people who've moved, minorities, and transients would be more likely than most to fall victim to what the court pointed out is an unlawful scheme according the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).

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The decision reasoned:

"Once the state takes the step of identifying individuals as active voters, those individuals clearly become 'registrants' protected by the NVRA.  Federal district court issued an order prohibiting the Secretary of State form enforcing this law.  The court relied on the NVRA as the ruling law that determined who is a 'registrant.'"  (court decision)

The court considered defendant Land's arguments then demonstrated that the totality of the Secretary's position resulted in voter disenfranchisement.  Land et al argued "that court orders affecting elections may result in voter confusion and cause a chilling effect."  The defendants then claimed that even if a qualified voter were rejected due to a cancelled registration, the voter would still have the option to vote on a "provisional" ballot.

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