Grumblings about the Secretary of State
September 7, 2012
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson on her recent visit to the Mackinac Bridge to show two license plates touting “Pure Michigan”, found that she has not yet overcome her gaff during the August 7 primary election – at least in northern Michigan. Johnson had sent out ballot materials asking voters if they were U.S. citizens, raising the ire of some voters who felt insulted while putting local election officials in the middle.
Traverse City Record-Eagle editors called the August 7 and earlier presidential primary election incidents a “mugging of Michigan citizens”. Instead of pushing new license plates promoting tourism to local people, who have endured 12 years of a weak economy, the editors opined that maybe it would better to attract many out-of-town visitors by using Michigan drivers to serve as mobile advertisements.
The August 7 citizen declaration incident hit the Record-Eagle’s front page and other area news media following the election. The headline read: “Angry voters. ‘They Are Asking If You Belong Here’ –Citizenship Question on Ballot Makes Voters Mad” with a picture of Traverse City Clerk Ben Marentette holding a ballot application issued by the Michigan Secretary of State showing the citizenship question that angered some voters.
Record Eagle political reporter Brian McGillivary interviewed Traverse City resident Jim Kulcyzk, a U.S. Army and Peace Corps veteran, who said he’s voted regularly for decades. Kulzcyk and others were not only angry and upset about the citizenship question, but also voiced uneasiness at the new electronic card readers installed at polling sites that scan licenses.
“The very first question, they are asking if you belong here,” Kulczyk told the Record-Eagle. “Come on, I’m doing my civic duty. If I was a non-citizen trying to vote, I’d just mark citizen anyway.”
Many voters grumbled about the process saying it made them seem like they were being accused of committing fraud.
Johnson decided to add the citizenship question and tell election workers to mark ballots for possible holding if voters didn’t comply. Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed legislation in July that would have required voters to fill out the citizenship question. Johnson’s refusal to pull the question created confusion with many local clerks across the state and raised the ire of some voters.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told the Record-Eagle that Johnson’s actions were both illegal and unnecessary.
“Why in the world is she spending all her time on non-resident voting and voter impersonation, things that don’t happen,” he said. “Then she ignores all these mountains of laundered money in the campaign finance system.”
Robinson knew the law had been vetoed and declined to recite an oath. He was turned away in his home voting precinct until he made calls to the city clerk and state elections bureau.
“There is no basis in law that requires me to reaffirm my citizenship,” Robinson said. “This thing was a huge bureaucratic over-reach.”
A Johnson spokesman, Fred Woodhams, defended her stance and called it an important part of maintaining election integrity. Johnson added the question for the February presidential primary ballot. Those who declined to check the box were asked to swear they were a citizen and given a provisional ballot subject to challenge. These ballots were counted and marked so votes could late be removed. Anyone who refused to recite an oath was denied a ballot.
Confusion returned in the August primary when Gov. Snyder vetoed a proposed state law mandating the citizenship ballot application question just before the July 4th holiday. Johnson didn’t remove the question nor did she send out a clarification until shortly before noon on Election Day, which didn’t clarify the confusion. Some, including Traverse City’s clerk didn’t see the clarification until after Election Day.
Retired Petoskey News-Review editor Kendall P. Stanley, in his weekly column, pointed out that while Johnson painted a glowing picture Michigan’s voting process in a guest column published in newspapers across the state, didn’t tell the whole story about the citizenship issue. Like the Record-Eagle, Stanley questioned her motives after the governor vetoed the legislation that would have allowed it.
“Voters are already required to affirm their citizenship when they register to vote, and for voters who religiously go to the polls year after year, election after election, the question was insulting and many of them were downright angry. Just be a little more forthcoming on that U.S. citizenship question than you were in your commentary.”
The Record-Eagle was even stronger in its August 26 editorial claiming Johnson’s voting demands were firmly rooted in the Deep South Jim Crow playbook of the 1950s and 60s, when workers used poll taxes and other dirty tricks to discourage black voters form exercising their citizenship.
One disgruntled voter, who had tried to correct an error made by the state on his driver license address, suggested Johnson quit worrying about bogus citizenship issues and take time to call into her own office or try to use the Secretary of State’s website, which he feels are not user friendly. He said even the card sent in the mail as a follow-up after his address change included a direct dial telephone number that did not work because of a full mailbox.
Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.