By Mario Gruszczynski and Walter Hanley
Author’s note: This piece was adapted from one published in Roosevelt’s 10 Ideas for Equal Justice journal.
Democracy works best when all citizens have a say in the policies that govern us. However, there is a real sense of pessimism about our democracy, and our youngest voting age adults are among the most underrepresented in our politics. Especially in state and local elections, young people’s participation is incredibly low. In local elections for the East Lansing City Council in November 2015, the five precincts located on Michigan State University’s campus had a voter turnout rate of 1.15%. While those on campus represented 12.9% of registered voters, they accounted for only 0.7% of actual voters.
Despite this, some states seem to be taking steps to make voting harder. These include new voter ID requirements, reduced early voting, and more stringent conditions for obtaining an absentee ballot. All of these restriction represent a profound step backwards. Instead, we should encourage young people to have a larger role in our elections. There is room for hope for in our democracy. Some states have taken steps to encourage their residents to participate in the democratic process by expanding absentee voting. Others, including Oregon and Colorado, have moved completely to voting by mail. Michigan should follow their lead in increasing access to absentee voting. Doing so would be a positive step towards treating voting as a right and not a privilege.
As it currently exists in Michigan, absentee voting allows those who are over 60, unable to vote without assistance, planning to be out of town on election day, in jail before trial, unable to vote because of a religious obligation, or working the election to request a ballot by mail. We would advocate for loosening these requirements, allowing for anyone to vote absentee if they would like. Twenty-seven states currently allow this, and Michigan should be one of them.
To demonstrate the benefits of this change, it is helpful to look at the specific case of student voters. Changing the requirements for absentee voting in Michigan would be a potent tool to address a key barrier to student election participation: access to the polls. On college campuses, students who are registered to vote in their home towns are allowed to vote absentee. Meanwhile, students registered to vote at school must find a way to get to the polls during a thirteen hour window on Election Day, creating an unreasonable obstacle for college voters who must juggle class, work, and extracurriculars. These issues would be easily rectified by an absentee voting system that explicitly allowed interested student voters to vote by mail. Currently, Michigan state law only affords college students an absentee ballot if they plan on being out of town on Election Day. Instead, election law should encourage all college voters, especially those who plan on voting in local elections.
A common argument against expanding absentee voting is an appeal to an increased risk of voter fraud. Increasing absentee voting, it is argued, increases the risk that votes will be coerced or fraudulently obtained. However, this argument ignores the astonishingly low rate of absentee voter fraud in the US. In fact, absentee voter fraud occurs at a rate approaching 0%. In addition, this figure varies independently of absentee voting access, casting further doubt on the impact expanded absentee voting has on overall rates of fraud.
There is some movement on expanding absentee voting in Michigan. House Bill 4033, introduced by Representative Robert Wittenberg (D), would provide for no-reason absentee voting in the state. It remains trapped in committee, however, and is unlikely to attract support in a largely Republican legislature. This is a shame. No-reason absentee voting has been shown to cause a long-term increase in voter participation, something that is desperately needed. More broadly, though, no-reason would be a powerful statement that Michigan cares about voting as a right, not a privilege.