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Michigan to automatically register people to vote when exiting prison

December 19, 2023
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This story was produced by Votebeat and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

Michigan to automatically register people to vote when exiting prison

People completing sentences for felony convictions will automatically be registered to vote as they prepare to leave prison, according to Votebeat, the result of first-of-its-kind legislation signed on Nov. 30, by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

House Bill 4983 expands the state's automatic voter registration system — which currently registers voters when they get a driver's license — to other state agencies such as the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services.

As part of the law, which goes into effect in June 2025, the secretary of state and the Department of Corrections must coordinate to issue a state identification or driver's license when individuals are released, which will also automatically register them to vote unless they opt out.

The new law will codify and expand a voter registration effort the Department of Corrections has had since 2020 as part of its program to provide vital documents such as birth certificates, Social Security cards, and state ID cards or driver's licenses, said Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Kyle Kaminski.

The new law will ensure the voter registration effort is permanent, "even when those who helped develop this system are no longer in their roles," Kaminski said. "Being engaged members of their communities, including voting, is an important element of reentry for all returning citizens."

Currently, incarcerated individuals can choose to have the prison submit their personal information to the Department of State, which then uses it to finalize the person's registration once they have exited prison and officially regained the right to vote, Kaminski said.

Under the new law, the Department of State will automatically process their voter registration, and the returning citizens, like other Michigan residents, can opt out later by responding to a notice from the Michigan secretary of state or through a written request to their city or township clerk, according to Cheri Hardmon, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state.

The current opt-out rate, added Hardmon, is quite low: From March 2021 to November 2023, 6,072 formerly incarcerated individuals were eligible to be automatically registered to vote, and only 12% did not.

State Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing), chair of the House Elections Committee and author of House Bill 4983, said the new law will greatly benefit those leaving prison and trying to reintegrate back into their communities. Democrats passed the bill on Nov. 8 in the House on a party-line vote, 56-53. In the Senate, the bill passed with four votes from Republicans, 24-14.

"I think not only being able to vote but being registered and encouraged is really important," Tsernoglou said in the wake of Gov. Whitmer's signing of the bill into law.

Tsernoglou said activists and groups met with her a year ago, advocating changing the law to ensure automatic voter registration for formerly incarcerated individuals.

The automatic voter registration bill was included in a larger package of 23 election and democracy bills Whitmer, a Democrat, signed the same day, ranging from laws regulating the use of artificial intelligence in campaign ads to pre-registering 16-year-olds so they automatically become voters at 18. The package was part of Democratic lawmakers' ambitious agenda to expand voting access for the 2024 elections, when they will again be trying to keep the state under Democratic control and deliver the state's electoral votes to President Biden after a narrow victory in 2020.

"Today, we are expanding voting rights and strengthening our democracy," Whitmer said in a press statement.

HB 4983 goes further than a piece of legislation introduced earlier in 2023 by former Michigan Rep. Lori Stone, a Democrat who left the House after she was elected mayor of Warren. Stone introduced House Bill 4534, which would require the Michigan Department of Corrections to provide voting information to returning citizens, including details about how to find their assigned polling place in their local community and the election schedule.

That bill has stalled in the state House but could be revived, Tsernoglou said. She added that it would complement the automatic voter registration for formerly incarcerated individuals by educating them on their right to vote and the how-tos of voting.

Detroit Pastor Terrence Devezin, who heads the United Kingdom Church on the city's west side, applauds the new law, saying it will play a huge role in helping men and women re-entering their communities from prison.

"It's absolutely great," Devezin said. "It takes away the bitterness of being locked up. To have both [an ID and a voter registration] makes them feel 'I'm a citizen now. I'm considered one of you all now.'"

Vince King, who was formerly incarcerated and works with others coming out of prison to get established back into their communities, said the new law "solves two big challenges," referring to obtaining identification and the right to vote.

King said being behind bars presented many barriers to political participation, and restoring voting rights means returning citizens can support candidates that address issues that might affect their daily lives, especially for Black men, such as economics, racial equality, and justice.

Registering to vote will prompt many formerly incarcerated individuals to begin viewing voting differently, said King, and regain "a sense of normalcy" and feeling of belonging to their communities.

"They're getting involved in this system that they would not have been involved in before," said King. "I'll never forget the first time I cast that ballot."

This story was produced by Votebeat and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

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