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No-reason absentee voting in Michigan is long overdue

For years, Michigan has made it harder to cast a vote than most other states. Most states now have early voting, where you can show up at the polls and cast a vote on certain days before the election.

Most states also allow anyone to request an absentee ballot who wants one, no questions asked. There are only fourteen states that don’t allow either option. And Michigan, along with Mississippi and Alabama, is one.

Not only do we have no early voting, there are very specific rules for who can even request an absentee ballot. They include voters over 60, those needing assistance casting a vote, those working as election inspectors outside their home precinct, and – oh yes – those in jail awaiting arraignment.

Somehow I’d guess not many votes are cast by those behind bars. Everyone who doesn’t fit into one of those categories has to stand in line on Election Day, which means that in our highly mobile and extremely busy world, many people end up not voting. Their kids get sick, they have some crisis at work, or they don’t have the time to stand in line.

Well, now a couple of Republican women are trying to do something about that. State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons has introduced a bill to allow anyone to get an absentee ballot, as long as they are a registered voter. Perhaps more importantly, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, the key Michigan official in charge of elections, is strongly supporting the bill.

What happens next will be very interesting from a number of perspectives.

First of all, this is an idea that is long overdue. It isn’t fair to make a mother with three small children try to find time to stand in line to vote. And we need to make it possible for as many citizens as possible to not only vote, but cast an informed vote. Personally, I think we’d all be much better off if everyone cast an absentee ballot, as is now the case in Washington and Oregon.

There are so many candidates and so many proposals on most ballots that no voter can possibly make informed decisions on all these contests in a voting booth.

But what happens next will tell us something very interesting about the Republican Party. There are those who say most Republicans are not in favor of making it easier to vote.

That, some of them fear, would lead to more Democrats voting. It is true that under the current system, Republican-leaning voters have historically been more likely to vote than Democrats.

Michigan Republicans have also refused to consider early voting. However, now, the two main figures supporting what’s called no-reason absentee voting are both Republican women. That doesn’t guarantee anything, however. Last year, Secretary Johnson came out in favor of requiring more openness and transparency in campaign financing, and for requiring disclosure of the identities of those shadowy groups who give millions to so-called issue-oriented ads.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof immediately rammed through a bill allowing them to continue to conceal their identities, and Gov. Rick Snyder signed it.

If no-reason absentee voting fails to pass, it will tell us everything we need to know about Michigan’s legislative leadership’s commitment to democracy.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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