Michigan Law Is First to Automatically Register People to Vote As They Leave Prison
The legislature passed a bill that will also expand automatic voter registration in other ways, including applying it at Medicaid offices, and likely add many new Michiganders to voter rolls.
Alex Burness | November 17, 2023
Editor’s note (Nov. 30): Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed this legislation into law on Thursday. To stay on top of local voting rights news, sign up for our weekly newsletter.
Nobody told Percy Glover he could vote when he was released from prison nineteen years ago. Michigan allows anyone who is not presently incarcerated to vote, meaning Glover could have immediately registered, but he spent years unaware of his rights.
“I was struggling financially. I couldn’t find a job. I was lost in everything,” he told Bolts. “It was years later before I actually considered even thinking about voting.”
Glover eventually learned his rights and started working to engage others in democracy. Last year, he founded F.A.I.R Voting Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for more inclusive election procedures in Michigan, and this month he is celebrating a major legislative victory: The state is about to make it a lot easier for people who exit prison to end up on voter rolls.
State lawmakers last week adopted House Bill 4983, which would put Michigan in a unique class. If signed by the governor, this would be the first law in the nation to require a state to register people to vote when they’re released from prison.
The state would later send people mail notifying them that they have been registered to vote, as well as giving them the option to decline and opt out of voter rolls.
Michigan first adopted automatic voter registration in 2018 as part of Proposal 3, a ballot measure that voters overwhelmingly approved. The idea is for public agencies to leverage their existing interactions with citizens to register them to vote, relieving individuals of that burden and shifting it to the state. But, like in most of the other states that have set up this program, Michigan has only implemented it to add people to voter rolls when they get, renew, or update their driver’s licenses or state IDs.
HB 4983 would significantly expand automatic voter registration by ordering the Department of Corrections to implement it as well; at least 8,000 people are released from state prison each year in Michigan, according to the secretary of state’s office. The bill would also bring other agencies into the program, building on steps that a few states have already taken to register people when they obtain a Native American tribal ID, or when they sign up for Medicaid.
“We wanted to include more than just driver’s licenses so that we could really get people registered any time they’re interacting with our government, which includes Medicaid offices and the Department of Corrections,” state Representative Penelope Tsernoglou, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation, told Bolts.
Tsernoglou was first elected in 2022 as part of a blue surge that delivered full control of Michigan’s state government to the Democratic Party for the first time since the 1980s. Democrats have passed a number of major voting bills this year, and HB 4983 itself is part of a broad voting-rights package that now awaits the signature of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has supported other efforts to expand ballot access.
Voting rights advocates in Michigan say they’re confident she will sign these new reforms; her office would not specify her plans when asked by Bolts.
These advocates wanted to build on the 2018 ballot initiative to expand its reach. “Prop 3 was a huge step in the right direction, but there were a lot of people not interacting [with a driver’s license office] so conversations since then really centered around how to reach people where they’re at,” said Ben Gardner, Michigan campaign manager for All Voting Is Local, a national organization. This bill also authorizes Michigan to still identify other public agencies in the future that could also automatically register people to vote.
Michigan is already better than most states at registering people to vote, but there are still hundreds of thousands of eligible Michiganders who aren’t registered—and that population includes disproportionate numbers of low-income people and people of color, voting rights advocates say. They’re confident that, if Whitmer signs the bill to strengthen automatic voter registration, it can expect to reach and sign up most of them.
Besides applying automatic voter registration to more agencies, HB 4983 would also greatly change how the program works—even at driver’s license offices.
Right now, Michiganders are asked whether they want to opt out of having the state register them to vote in the course of the transaction in which they’re getting or updating an ID. Under HB 4983, they would no longer be asked this question while conducting this other business; instead, they would later be sent a mailer at home, and they would have to return it if they wish to not be registered.
This is known as “back-end” automatic voter registration. Data from Colorado, which has also opted for such a model, show that this system dramatically reduces the share of people who choose to opt out. This year alone, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., have adopted similar legislation to switch from “front-end” to “back-end” models. Oregon’s bill, like Michigan’s, also extends its program to apply to Medicaid.
The Medicaid change comes with an asterisk, though: States cannot enact it without the blessing of the federal government, which for years has held up such reforms.
Asked about Michigan’s bill, the Biden administration told Bolts this week that it is reviewing the issue, echoing an earlier statement it shared with Bolts in July about Oregon’s bill.
“We recognize the importance of state Medicaid agencies assisting in expanding voter access and registration activities for the populations they serve,” the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) said in its new statement. “CMS is considering additional opportunities to enhance Medicaid’s role in promoting voter registration while also ensuring compliance with Medicaid confidentiality requirements.”
But Michigan would not need to wait for any approval to enlist its prison system into expanding voter rolls.
In fact, the state has already begun experimenting with this reform through administrative changes. According to the secretary of state’s office, Michigan has given people exiting any state prison the opportunity to register to vote since 2020, through a program that helps them obtain a state ID as they re-enter society.
HB 4983 would substantially build on that administrative effort, codifying it into law to make it a requirement for the DOC to register people. It’d also expand it to anyone released from prison independent of an ID program, and switch the procedure to a back-end model.
Michigan is particularly well positioned to leverage the point at which people leave prison to register to vote, since it’s among 24 states where people regain the right to vote as soon as they exit the prison, without any of the long waiting periods or onerous additional conditions that many other states impose. (In Maine and Vermont, plus D.C., anyone can also vote from prison)
Erica Peresman, a voting rights attorney in Michigan, told Bolts that many formerly incarcerated people are currently disinclined to register because they’re worried about whether they’re allowed.
“They’d be afraid of doing something wrong,” said Peresman, who is senior advisor at the Michigan nonprofit Promote the Vote. “We’d be out there at voter registration drives and people would say, ‘no, I have a felony on my record.’ They didn’t want to get in trouble, and they weren’t necessarily going to listen to some lady standing on the street with a clipboard.”
HB 4983 would solve some of that problem; formerly incarcerated people would no longer have to wonder whether it’s safe to register because the state would automatically do that for them and send them a mailer.
Still, advocates say Michigan should go further. The state will need a “massive voter education effort” to complement the new policy, said Peresman, who warns that many who stand to be affected by the state’s recent expansions to voter rights may still not realize that they’ve been registered, or that that they could take advantage of new voting procedures like vote-by-mail
Tsernoglou, the bill’s sponsor, agrees. She wanted the legislature to also pass another bill that would have required the Department of Corrections to provide people with specific information about their voting rights. That bill, HB 4534, would have required prison officials to tell people who exit incarceration that they are eligible to vote, how to obtain a mail ballot, and when elections are held in Michigan. (The secretary of state’s office says it already provides some of this info to people leaving prison; HB 4534 would expand and codify enshrine that in law.)
The bill did not pass either chamber before the legislature adjourned last week. “I think that bill would be a prime example of something we could do additionally, next year,” Tsernoglou told Bolts.
Another issue that the reform will likely run into is that some people who leave prison don’t have a stable address to provide. Khyla Craine, deputy legal director in the secretary of state’s office, told Bolts that her office allows people with unstable housing situations to update their addresses online; the state would work with parole and probation officers, plus community organizations like Percy Glover’s, to make sure people know how to do this, she said.
Glover said that a bill like HB 4983 can only go so far if the state does not also step up its investment in the success of people re-entering society, ensuring they have access to jobs and housing.
“Voter economics is real,” he said. “If you are impoverished, you are not thinking about an election, and most people leaving a prison are not walking into a strong financial position. Finding somewhere to live, having transportation, having basic needs met—that’s the priority.”
The plan to automatically register people leaving prison is “very important,” he added, “but we won’t see significant turnout, as we should, without all these other layers.”
Now is the best time to support Bolts
NewsMatch is matching all donations (up to $1,000) through the end of the year. Support our nonprofit newsroom today.