Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 12, 2012

Big confusion at the polls


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---- — Michigan's primary election didn't attract much attention or draw many voters. But it may have sparked a huge controversy that had nothing to do with any candidates on the ballot.

Instead, the post-election focus was largely on Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who at first insisted that voters answer a question as to whether or not they are a citizen, then retracted that order midway through election day, causing confusion.

Some voters went home in a huff, Democrats denounced Johnson's "disregard for the law" and various partisan and non-partisan groups are talking about finding grounds to sue.

The Secretary of State's actions were especially baffling, given that you have to be a citizen to even legally register to vote — and because her fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Snyder, last month vetoed a law requiring voters to answer the citizenship question.

The governor said he rejected the law because it could have caused confusion at the polls, and said the goals should be to make it easier, not harder, for citizens to vote.

Confusion is exactly what happened. The election results themselves were mainly predictable.

As expected, Republicans chose former Congressman Pete Hoekstra to wage an uphill battle to defeat U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is seeking a third term.

Statewide, the oddest result came when the normally Republican Eleventh District, a collection of sleepy and mainly affluent Detroit suburbs, was left with a radical Tea Party GOP nominee who wants to close down all foreign military bases, abolish the direct election of U.S. Senators, and investigate the Federal Reserve System. Whether the national party or the voters will support Kerry Bentivolio remains to be seen, but the primary result seemed to make the race competitive for the Democratic nominee, Syed Taj, the former chief physician at Oakwood Hospital.

Taj, a native of India, is a mainstream Democrat who is also a popular Canton Township trustee. What's not known is whether the district's voters will be comfortable with his unusual name, lilting accent and Muslim faith.

Elsewhere, statewide primary results probably left the Democrats with a slightly improved chance of retaking the Michigan House of Representatives, though gaining 10 seats won't be easy. After an intense campaign, Metropolitan Detroit voters agreed to tax themselves to save the world-class Detroit Institute of Arts.

But while the primary is now over, the controversy over the secretary of state's actions may be just beginning. This first came to light on election day, when citizens began complaining to the media.

Rich Robinson, president of the non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, was denied a ballot at his East Lansing precinct after he refused to answer the citizenship question.

A woman named Jeanne Barron had a similar experience in Kalamazoo Township, and was told falsely she had to answer the question because "it's in the Michigan Constitution." However, at other polling places people were apparently not required to declare their citizenship.

Finally, at noon, longtime state elections director sent an e-mail bulletin to local clerks changing the policy. "If a voter refuses to fill in either yes or no "¦ read this statement. 'Under the Michigan Constitution and election laws, you must be a citizen of the United States in order to vote. Then issue a ballot to the voter."

However, according to several sources, many clerks in the field never got that e-mail.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said "Johnson's actions as our state's top elections official are disgraceful. She tells election workers to further deny ballots to qualified voters in direct violation of Michigan law."

Robinson, who is non-partisan, later returned to his precinct and voted after the rule was changed. "I had to stand for the rule of law," he said, explaining his actions.

"Not even an elected constitutional executive can promulgate laws ad hoc to deprive citizens of their rights." Jocelyn Benson, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, went further. "Our coalition of non-partisan groups — the Michigan Election Coalition — is collecting statements from voters and exploring a few legal theories." She confirmed she was thinking of taking legal action against the secretary of state.

In fairness, Benson is not non-partisan at all; she is the Democrat who Secretary Johnson defeated for the post in 2010.

But that doesn't mean the Secretary of State won't face legal complications. For her part, Johnson says she will again insist on the citizenship question in November, when close to four times the number of people are apt to descend on the polls.

How all this will be resolved is anything but certain. Though one thing is clear. When the governor predicted that a citizenship question would lead to confusion at the polls, he was truly a prophet.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.