By Mikhayla Dunaj and Maggie McMillin
Co-published with the Detroit Free Press
With record voter turnout across the country, and unprecedented levels of absentee voting, calls to voter hotlines surged during the presidential election, with one hotline reporting double the number of calls it received in 2016.Â
Callers in Michigan reported confusion over voter ID requirements, reports of electioneering, and questions stemming from a 2018 referendum that expanded access to absentee voting and implemented same-day voter registration in Michigan.Â
The Washington D.C.-based Election Protection Hotline operates a national service and partners with local experts to field questions about state election laws. It handled more than 228,000 calls nationwide between Jan. 1 and Election Day. On Election Day and the five weeks leading up to it, the hotline received 7,200 calls from Michigan voters. Twenty percent of those calls came from Wayne County on Election Day.
Here is a look at Michiganâ€™s most common in-person voting issues reported on Election Day and in the days leading up to it.Â
Problem: Voter ID requirements caused confusion for officials and voters
By law, Michigan voters are not required to show a photo ID at the polls, although it is encouraged and voters who donâ€™t show an ID or proof of residence must sign an affidavit. But Michiganâ€™s lack of a voter ID law didnâ€™t stop some officials from requiring ID.
Sharon Dolente, a voting rights strategist at the ACLU of Michigan, said this problem occurs during every election cycle.
â€œIf you don’t have an ID or you don’t have it with you, you can sign an affidavit and sometimes poll workers forget that or they don’t follow that,â€ Dolente said.
Potential voters who registered to vote were sometimes asked to present a photo ID when the requirement to register is a proof of residency. If someone doesnâ€™t have an ID with that information, they are allowed to show a bank statement, government document or utility bill.Â
â€œIdentification rules were an issue: making sure that election officials are not asking for more identification or different identification than is required,â€ Dolente said.
How it can be resolved:
Election Protection volunteers who received these calls contacted the elections official to correct the problem. If that didnâ€™t resolve the issue, they called the local clerk.
But officials are more responsive, Dolente said, when voters reach out to their clerks about the issue. She encouraged voters to call their clerk on Election Day and after with any concerns.
â€œThey work for you,â€ Dolente said.
The ACLU also makes preventative efforts for common problems. With an uptick in calls regarding voter ID issues before Election Day, the ACLU put out aÂ releaseÂ that voters could show as proof of the law to an official if issues occurred.
Itâ€™s important for voters to be informed about their ID options in advance, said Julie Houk, Managing Council of Election Protection at the Lawyersâ€™ Committee for Civil Rights under Law.
The Michigan Secretary of Stateâ€™s office says voters can bring the following photo ID: Michigan driverâ€™s license or state-issued ID, federal or state government-issued ID, a U.S. passport, student ID, tribal identification card or military ID.
Problem: Confusion about election basics like how and where to vote
TheÂ â€œvast majorityâ€Â of calls the Election Protection Hotline received were general questions, said Houk, like a voterâ€™s polling place and if theyâ€™re registered to vote.Â
Michigan voters in 2018 approved Proposal 3, which implemented changes like no-reason absentee voting and same-day voter registration. Novemberâ€™s election was the first test of those new rules during a presidential election. For Michiganders who needed to register on Election Day, Houk citedconfusion about the difference between clerkâ€™s offices, which offered same-day registration, and polling places, which did not.
How it can be resolved:
Avoiding Election Day frustrations, said Houk, comes down to voter education.
â€œWith same-day registration, it’s really a piece of voter education, and making sure people understand what that process is so they’re not frustrated by finding out when they go to a polling place they can’t do their same-day registration there.â€
Resources like the Secretary of Stateâ€™s Language Access Program, which provides information about topics like â€œHow do I find my polling place?â€ in 10 different languages, aim to fill some of these gaps.
Houk highlighted voting information for returning citizens as another important area that could use more voter education. â€œIn Michigan, unlike other states, if you have a conviction and you’re out of custody you can vote even if youâ€™re still under probation or parole. That’s another piece where there could be stronger, and more comprehensive, education so people understand what the process is.â€
Dolente noted knowing oneâ€™s rights can solve some common voting problems. If voters are in line when a polling location closes, they have the right to vote. If their name isnâ€™t showing up in the pollbook, it might be human or technological error. In this scenario, a voter with a photo ID who proves their address can cast an affidavit ballot, which will be put into the tabulator, as opposed to a provisional ballot, which stays in an envelope until the voterâ€™s information and registration can be confirmed.
Problem: Long lines at polling places
Concerns about polling place access, long lines and delays were common in Wayne County. After general questions, this was the most commonly received type of call.
How it can be resolved:
One of the easiest ways to avoid long lines is to vote absentee.An uptick in absentee voting has already helped shorten polling place lines in many areas, Houk said.
Voter education programs like the Michigan Secretary of Stateâ€™s Voter Information Center can also provide information that helps polling places run smoothly. When people know exactly what identification they need and are in the right place, â€œit helps cut down on lines and helps them get through the voting process more expeditiously,â€ said Houk.
Problem: Electioneering and voter intimidation
This was the third-most commonly filed complaint in Wayne County, amounting to 30 callsfrom voters on Election Day. Those calls mostly reported â€œscreaming or loud efforts to get the particular campaignâ€™s point across,â€ Houk said. â€œThere weren’t physical abuse or physical threats that came into our hotline.â€
How it can be resolved:Â
Most calls complained of electioneering outside of the legal boundary of 100 feet away from the entrance to a polling place.Â
There isnâ€™t much that can be done to address these cases.
The best way to limit votersâ€™ exposure to electioneering, campaigning and potential intimidation is to limit the amount of time they have to spend waiting in lines outside of polling places.
Problem: Election law changes create confusion
Michiganâ€™s updated election laws led to confusion among elections officials as well as voters, Dolente said.
â€œThere has been a fair amount of confusion this year amongst election officials,â€ said Dolente. â€œWe’ve gotten a lot of reports of demands for more than what’s required or demands for identification when the affidavit would have been permissible; so there’s been really a number of those issues throughout this year and it’s continued into Election Day.â€Â
How it can be resolved:Â
One remedy for this is increased training for election officials, which is a technique that Houk says worked in Detroit. â€œThe Detroit City Clerk’s Office spent a lot of time training their workers and whole staff, in a way that they were better trained, possibly, than in prior cycles and even in the primary.â€Â Longer training and extra hazard payÂ worked in Detroitâ€™s favor: â€œWhen you focus down on Detroit, it wasn’t a particularly poorly run election from what we could see.â€Â
Mikhayla Dunaj and Maggie McMillin are Detroit Free Pressâ€™ and Detour Detroitâ€™s Election SOS Fellows, a program by Hearken and the American Press Institute to expand coverage of the 2020 election.Â