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Michigan’s new law is getting the most reluctant voting group to the polls

"It's about them maybe now having a stake in the political system."

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

In the small city of Charlotte, Michigan, seven people took advantage of a new law this week allowing voters to cast ballots on the same day they register. And of those seven same-day voters, six were teenagers.

Election Day in Michigan on Tuesday was mostly a low-key affair. Balloting was held on a variety of local measures affecting school budgets and property taxes. Voters in one township considered allowing the introduction of marijuana businesses.

But the election was also a trial run for expanded voting access, including a potentially game-changing move that appears likely to significantly boost youth voting across the state.

Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 3 last November, which introduced various measures making it easier for people to vote.

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In the past, residents in the state were not allowed to register to vote within 30 days of an election and they were unable to cast absentee ballots without a valid reason. Last year’s vote lifted those restrictions, allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots and allowing people to register the day of the election.

The new law’s effect was immediately felt in Charlotte, a small city with a population of around 9,000 people, some 20 miles from the state capital Lansing. High school teacher John Moran credits same-day voting with the impressive teen turnout at his school on Election Day.

“Knowing that kids are hearing the message and going out there and at least trying to make their voice heard is a pretty big deal for me,” said Moran, who has long preached greater civic engagement to the kids at his school.

Moran says the changes Michigan voters approved last November have increased the youth vote beyond his wildest dreams. “Six of seven people that used same-day registration were students? That’s amazing,” he said.

Voting rights activists for years have looked for the secret to getting more teens and young adults — historically one of the least likely demographic groups to vote — to turn out at the polls. The answer, it seems, might be as simple as making registration easier, and collecting ballots the same day so that voters can make just one, rather than two trips to their polling station.

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At a time when a number of states and local jurisdictions are making it harder for people to vote by putting draconian and punitive ballot access measures into place, some localities, and states like Michigan, seem to have concluded that expanding the franchise is a desirable goal.

Even before this week’s balloting, there were signs that — if given enough of an opportunity — young voters in Michigan just might just turn out at the polls. Of 441 people who registered to vote on Election Day, a little more than half (231) were between 18 and 20 years old, said Shawn Starkey, a spokesperson for Michigan’s secretary of state.

“These are voters that otherwise would not have been able to exercise their right to vote,” Starkey told ThinkProgress.

The measures approved in November also make absentee voting easier. Moran said he could have gone to his local polling station in Charlotte on Tuesday, but opted to vote absentee this year — just because he could. “I could’ve easily gone in and voted like I normally do but I wanted to exercise my right to vote under Proposition 3, because to me, it’s historic,” he told ThinkProgress.

Moran was in good company. Election officials said that in Charlotte, 1,007 absentee ballot votes were cast, which comprises more than 15% of the town’s registered voters. And city officials said that an astonishing three times the number of people submitted absentee ballots as turned out at the polls. “We had more (absentee ballot voters) than we did people coming to the polls,” said Terpstra, adding that, by contrast, 336 people voted in person.

Sharon Dolente, a voting rights specialist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, told ThinkProgress that Michigan’s new voting law is expected to impact people within the state who move frequently. Such voters — who often fail to register at their new address in time to take part in elections in their new precincts — include younger voters, college students, lower-income residents, and people of color.

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“You’re not doing anything wrong when you are moving frequently,” Dolente said. “When your voting system makes you do more work when you move, it makes it less likely that you will do that.”

A study by the Center for American Progress found that when states implement same-day voter registration, voter participation increases on average by 5%. Same-day voter registration laws particularly impact populations that have historically been underrepresented in the political system including young people and people of color, the study found. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)

If put in place nationally, same-day voter registration could boost participation an estimated 12% among 18 to 25 year olds, 7.5% among African Americans and 11% among Latinx voters, the study found.

Before November, Michigan was one of more than 30 states that had still not adopted same-day voter registration. Its implementation was projected to increase voter turnout in Michigan by more than 243,000, the study found.

Likewise, states that impose no-excuse absentee ballot voting increases voter participation an estimated 3% over time. The law particularly benefits students and people with challenging work schedules, who struggle to pay for child care, and who face mobility challenges, the study found.

Moran said he can easily understand how the new law which only marginally affects him, could make a huge difference in the lives of other voters.

“Inconveniences for me [are] not as drastic as for single mothers who want to cast a ballot but have two jobs and are dropping off their kids,” he said.

“Maybe,” he added, “those people had a political opinion but wasn’t able to express it because they were fighting for their economic lives.”

The same is true for the teenagers and his school and elsewhere, who might finally have discovered that they not only have a reason, but now also have the opportunity, to vote.

“It’s about them maybe now having a stake in the political system,” he said.