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Leaching Democracy

By Yvonne M. White, President, Michigan State Conference NAACP 

Nationally, the voting rights of American citizens are under attack. Rather than build upon the mass, diverse, and enthusiastic participation we saw in 2008 and focus on moving the more than 70 million citizens who remain unregistered onto the rolls, much of the country is taking purposeful, however underhanded, steps to undermine the power of the vote. Michigan is no exception.

Suppressing the Vote

Under the guise of preventing mass voter fraud, Michigan is facing a suite of bills which will assuredly disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters. For instance, one change would require all would-be voter registrants (even Michigan voters who are re-registering) to establish their identity at the time of registration. Options would be limited to a photo ID. Federal rules however, already require first-time voters to do just that before casting their first ballot. Moreover, nationally more than 21 million voting-eligible citizens (including 6 million senior citizens) are estimated to lack photo ID.

The bills being introduced also include efforts to have every voter sign a citizenship statement at the polls. This will do nothing more than slow down the voting process on Election Day. In turn, slow polls are a barrier for those who cannot wait out long lines due to other critical obligations (such as picking up children from daycare or getting to work on time).

The real irony however, is that the problem these measures seek to remedy is imaginary as according to Michigan state registrars, mass voter fraud does not exist. This is likely because the best solution to preventing mass voter fraud is already on the Michigan voter registration application.  For instance, the very first question on the application asks one to declare their citizenship. Additionally, this statement – indeed, all the information on the application – is coupled with a voter declaration that includes fines and imprisonment for providing false information.  

Thus we should all be asking ourselves why, in the face of a system that has proven itself capable of ensuring the integrity of state elections, some legislators are barreling down this path. The answer to that question ought to be of grave concern to all voters and compel each of us to take immediate action.

Muting our Voice

Preventing voter participation is only half of it. Michigan’s Public Act 4 (2011) has created “emergency mangers” with the power to eradicate the point of voting; that is, to select the people who will represent you as it gives them the absolute authority to override decisions made by elected officials at the local level. In fact, one emergency manager has noted that the only power local elected officials have is that which the emergency manager gives them. By latest counts, at least seven Michigan cities and school districts are under emergency manager rule, representing more than 60 percent of Michigan’s black residents.

While the state claims this process is designed to move localities facing financial difficulties out of the red, it is really a backdoor maneuver for attacking voters’ ability to effectively choose who will represent them. It is also an underhanded way to undue prudent decisions made by those elected by the people, as an emergency manager can for instance, make sweeping changes to existing contracts including those involving pensions and union labor.

Standing Up & Speaking Out

The Michigan State Conference and our units have vigorously and tirelessly opposed the attack on voting rights emerging in our states. We have and will continue putting our position in defense of a truly participatory democracy on the record during public meetings and hearings and we have expressed our deep disappointment over the Michigan State Board of Canvassers’ recent failure to certify more than 200,000 signatures seeking a referendum on Public Act 4, directly to the Governor.

The NAACP has always embraced the impossible, fearlessly marching forward at an unwavering pace and our triumphs have not been our own but rather, that of the nation as our fight and our victories have lifted voting barriers and made democracy more readily available to all people. Now, as ever, we will continue doing the same. We will push to ensure we leave for our children and the children yet unseen the chance to live in a nation marked by unfettered access to the ballot box and the absence of inequality that only a truly participatory democracy can offer. We call on you to do the same. Together, we can make a difference. Your power, your decision. Stand up Michigan and speak out!