Michigan media on voter fraud

The story in the state so far—and what’s missing from it

MICHIGAN — In Michigan, the political landscape tends to be divided by—well, by landscape. East and West, rural and urban, Upper and Lower Peninsula: geographic differences sometimes seem mirrored in political differences that are, in turn, reflected in media. But Michigan’s reporters and editorial writers have an unexpected cohesiveness around one particular issue this fall: voter fraud. The state’s claims that such fraud is a significant problem here—one requiring new hoops for voters to jump through at the polls—has been treated with a common skepticism by Michigan media.

In July, Republican Governor Rick Snyder vetoed a set of bills designed, Republican sponsors said, to combat voter fraud. This included measures requiring voters to affirm citizenship at the polls. In his veto message, Snyder said this would create too much confusion for absentee voters, and suggested a simpler alternative that added “US citizen” to the opening declarative statement on the application, rather than require voters to check a box. “Voting rights are precious and we need to work especially hard to make it possible for people to vote,” he affirmed.

But weeks later, at the August primary, voters were nonetheless greeted with a citizenship question on applications at the polls. Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, went ahead with asking voters to affirm citizenship, citing her authority over forms used during elections. Local news reports picked up on accounts, collected by voting rights activists, of confusion and hassle at the polls—stories by Michigan Radio, the Detroit Free Press, and CBS Detroit are typical—though there was no coverage that I’ve seen about Snyder’s specific concern of confusion for absentee voters. Secretary of State Johnson’s office had to release a mid-day clarification that voters who did not check the citizenship box should be read a statement and issued a ballot.

As the November election nears, some county and city clerks are refusing Johnson’s mandate, including those in Washtenaw County (which includes Ann Arbor), Macomb County (north of Detroit), and the state capitol of Lansing. On September 17, the Detroit Free Press reported that a coalition of voting rights activists, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a federal lawsuit challenging the measure’s constitutionality—an effort that caught the notice of Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who suggested that “What the ACLU wants is they don’t want people committing perjury when they register. They do want people voting, who are not American citizens, to advance.” For her part, Sec. of State Johnson estimates that up to 4,000 people are illegally registered to vote, which, she says, justifies asking about citizenship at the polls.

The back and forth on this story gives Michigan’s media plenty of opportunities to weigh in, and, for the most part, they are doing a good job in applying skepticism to the secretary of state’s claims about voter fraud in Michigan. Smart journalists are also connecting this to how the voter fraud story is playing out nationally, which raises the stakes on this local front. There are, however, serious and consistent gaps in the coverage. Scrutiny of the secretary of state’s claims is not matched by scrutiny of claims made by voting rights advocates. And while hooking this local story to the larger national debate about voting restrictions is wise, political reporters are missing the other obvious national story that’s reflected in a new citizenship question at the polls: immigration.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle ran an editorial last week that minced no words: “SOS playing politics” read the headline. The piece immediately provided readers with some national context for Johnson’s claims.

Michigan voters need to apply a little logic—and a boatload of skepticism—to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s recent claim that there could be as many as 4,000 noncitizens on Michigan’s voter rolls.

It’s exactly the same kind of claim made by Republican election officials in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa. All have proven to be wildly inflated.

The editorial went on to lay out exactly how officials’ estimates matched up with investigation results in each of these states. (There was consistently a large gap.) The Record-Eagle editorial then bluntly says that:

If there is a problem, it lies within the Secretary of State’s office, where people register to vote. They’re asked then to affirm their citizenship, and if the SOS registers them anyway the problem lies within her office.
In a nice bit of cross-state media alliance, the editorial gives a nod (but alas, not a link!) to a solid September 19th Detroit News piece by political reporter Chad Livengood on Johnson’s 4,000 estimate, which turns out to be based on citizenship information for one-fifth of Michigan’s population, and extrapolations from an exhaustive SOS investigation that found 963 non-citizens registered to vote in Michigan—only 54 of whom have ever voted, for a total of 95 votes. On September 23rd, the Detroit Free Press gave space to Johnson to state her case in its “opposing points of view” editorial series. Johnson wrote that Michigan’s voter problem comes from 30 years of a federal requirement that compelled secretary of state employees “to ask all customers, regardless of citizenship, if they wanted to register to vote. Wrote Johnson:
Too many did. There were language barriers. They were trying to do the right thing in their new country. Some of them voted.

She continued:

Today, our secretary of state clerks use a federal database to check citizenship before offering customers a chance to register. But we must still deal with the problem on our voter rolls, and I believe the check box—until we get the federal government to help us solve a problem it created—is our best tool to do that.

Johnson’s column is paired with one by Jocelyn Benson, director of the Michigan Center for Election Law. (Importantly, the Freep identifies Benson as the 2010 Democratic candidate for secretary of state in her bio, though it should’ve explicitly stated that she was Johnson’s opponent.) Benson’s op-ed notes that, “Johnson has irresponsibly declared that 4,000 noncitizens vote in Michigan’s elections.” She argues that there “is no evidence that requiring voters to re-answer the citizenship question every time they vote will stop noncitizens from voting.” Benson suggests alternative solutions to mis-registered voters would include better training for SOS branch employees, where most voters are registered, and contacting suspected noncitizens directly prior to elections.

But Benson misrepresents Johnson’s words. Nowhere has Johnson “declared” that 4,000 noncitizens actually “vote in Michigan’s elections.” Rather, Johnson consistently indicates that 4,000 noncitizens may be on the rolls, and she always couches the number with qualifiers like “could be” and “may be,” as is the case in a story in The Oakland Press. Considering that the 4,000 number is based on several layers of estimation and incomplete date, Johnson’s habit of bandying it about is certainly open to critique—especially since her office has much more fact-based (and much smaller) numbers of noncitizen voters on hand. But journalists (and Benson) should push back on the 4,000 estimate on its face, and should also fairly acknowledge Johnson’s own caveats to the number.

Reporters should also push voting rights advocates for specific evidence that the citizenship question creates an unreasonable burden on voters. The only specific anecdotes I encountered, often provided by voting rights organizations, are of voters who purposefully refused or challenged the question in order to demonstrate a larger point. (One of the prominent figures to do this was Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, who I’ve written about as “the perfect source” for political reporters.) This is not to suggest that inconsistencies in how poll workers respond to voters who do and do not answer the question won’t be a potential problem on Election Day.

Elsewhere, small-circulation publications have positively contributed to the ongoing story. The Royal Oak Daily-Tribune on September 20th ran one of the few pieces I found that acknowledged what happens when a citizen checks the “no” box on Johnson’s forms, beyond being read a statement and issued a ballot. (The application form will be displayed on a computer when the individual visits any SOS branch for any reason, and if the SOS staff member sees “no” checked, he or she forwards it to the local clerk and the voter is removed from the rolls.) The Southgate Times-Herald’s editorial board on September 15th argued that the lack of voter participation is a far bigger issue than voter fraud. And even as The Holland Sentinel’s editorial board ultimately argued that the citizenship question is not the battle voting rights advocates should be picking, its September 20th editorial highlighted how the most significant recent cases of voter fraud in Michigan have involved not citizens but legislators.

The Lansing State Journal ran a short piece on September 24th about how the citizenship question may stifle Latino voters, pegging it to a new report by The Advancement Project, a national civil rights group. Given the heat of the political conversation on immigration, it seems like this is an intuitive tie-in to the emergence of the citizenship question, and it’s a wonder that more outlets haven’t picked up on it, especially since the immigration story plays out elsewhere in these very same outlets.

There’s still room to report this story, however, as the LSJ article does not go very far, and does not give readers resources to explore further—the name of The Advancement Project report is not even mentioned, or linked in the online edition. While the piece mentions that only 68,000 of 171,100 eligible Latino citizens voted in Michigan’s 2010 election, it doesn’t offer any other demographic numbers to put that in perspective, or even compare it to the ratio of Latino voters in the August primary, when voters encountered the citizenship box. When I dug up the report—it’s called ”Segregating American Citizenship: Latino Disenfranchisement in 2012”—and its press materials, I found it exclaiming that “voter suppression laws could disenfranchise 10 million Latino voters in 2012.” That’s a large number. And a ridiculous one. It is nearly half the entire population of Latino citizens in the US eligible Latino voters in the US. The estimate seems to come from counting the total number of Hispanic citizens of voting age in all 23 states examined in the report.

The Lansing State Journal piece might have brought rigor to The Advancement Project’s claims. It might have offered a reasonable interrogation into how the citizenship question affects Michigan’s Latino voters, or examined more seriously the barriers faced by Hispanic voters, or connected the citizenship question at the Michigan polls to national immigration politics. It does not. As a result, the piece feels more theoretical than reported, and, with a statement from the SOS office to counter claims by the Advancement Project, it devolves into the circularity of he-said, she-said.

While gaps in the voter fraud story in Michigan remain, the swarming of its media around the issue provides, collectively, fairly cohesive coverage in a state not particularly known for its cohesive politics. But serious omissions remain. In the final month before Election Day, Michigan reporters and editorialists have their work cut out for them.

Correction: The original version of this post reported that 10 million is “nearly half the entire population of Latino citizens in the US.” In fact, 10 million is nearly half the entire population of eligible Latino voters in the US. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.