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.