We must make it easier for Michigan to vote absentee

Voter turnout in Michigan’s last presidential election was 63 percent, better than the national average of about 57 percent, but far below turnout in Georgia, at 72 percent, or Maryland, 74 percent.

The difference between the states? Georgia and Maryland are among the 28 states that allow something called “no-reason absentee voting.”

In Michigan and in 21 other states, voters who would like to vote absentee must present a reason to be allowed to do so. To receive an absentee ballot a voter must be 60 or older, unable to vote at a poll without assistance, plan to be out of town, in jail awaiting arraignment or trail, working as an election inspector or unable to vote at a poll for religious reasons.

And because Michigan is also one of a small number of states that don’t offer early voting, folks who can’t make the wait have few options.

It’s an antiquated system that doesn’t take into account the reality of Michiganders’ lives. Americans should prioritize voting – it’s a privilege and a right – and move heaven and earth to get to the polls on Election Day. But in a good turnout year, voters can wait an hour or more to cast a ballot. So what if you have a demanding job, can’t get time off or are at home with small children who won’t tolerate a lengthy wait to vote? In Michigan, you’re out of luck.

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has proposed instituting no-reason absentee voting (and it’s supported by Gov. Rick Snyder), but Johnson’s proposal would require voters to present the absentee ballot in person, with government-issued ID. Most states that have no-reason absentee voting allow voters to mail in the ballot.

Johnson has said that the in-person visit is required to ensure that the ballot was cast by a legitimate voter. She has also expressed concerns that Michigan’s voter file is too compromised for expanded absentee voting, saying that about 100,000 of the 7.4 million names on Michigan’s voter rolls are questionable.

It’s laudable that Johnson wants to make it easier for Michiganders to vote, and that she is concerned about voter fraud, a serious matter. But let’s be clear – there’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Michigan, and there are no reports that voter fraud, or allegations of voter fraud, have increased in states with no-reason absentee voting. Focusing on this nonexistent threat at the expense of access to the franchise is the wrong decision.

Bills to expand absentee voting have been introduced by state lawmakers in previous years, but have languished, even after Snyder backed the change in his State of the State speech last year. There’s no reason a bill expanding absentee voting shouldn’t pass this year – this is low-hanging fruit that could improve the lives of Michigan voters and increase the number of residents who have a say in state, local and national politics.