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DETROIT – Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Michigan and the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP filed a federal lawsuit late yesterday challenging two statewide voter purge programs that could potentially disfranchise hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters in advance of the November 2008 presidential election. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Detroit against Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Christopher M. Thomas, and Ypsilanti Clerk Frances McMullen.
"We have repeatedly advised Secretary Land's office that these voter purge programs are unlawful, yet they have refused to bring their practices into compliance," said Bradley Heard, senior attorney with Advancement Project. "Thus, we felt that filing this action was the only way we could ensure that the voting rights of thousands of Michigan residents would not be infringed upon during this important and historic presidential election, and beyond."
Advancement Project's previous requests for meetings with Director Thomas to discuss these issues were refused.
Under one voter removal program, the Michigan Department of State, which administers both driver's license and voter registration records, immediately cancels the voter registrations of Michigan voters who obtain driver's licenses in other states instead of issuing the appropriate confirmation of registration notices and following the required voter removal procedures mandated by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). According to the Department's own estimations, over 280,000 voters per year are removed from the rolls in this manner.
Under the second voter removal program, a Michigan state law requires local clerks to nullify the registrations of newly-registered voters whenever their original voter identification cards are returned by the post office as undeliverable. Detroit elections officials report that nearly 30,000 voters per year in that city alone are removed from the rolls as a result of this state election law, which violates the NVRA and other federal and state laws. The NVRA permits voters to remain on the voter rolls for at least two federal elections after voter registration cards are returned.
"With Michigan set to be one of the most important battleground states in this election and turnout predicted to be the highest in state history, we are going to do everything we can to make sure that every vote counts and that nobody is illegally purged from the voter rolls," said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan.
The plaintiffs in the case are the United States Student Association (USSA) and the ACLU of Michigan. The parties have asked the federal court to schedule a hearing as soon as possible and to enter an immediate temporary injunction barring further purges under these programs.
Jonathan Doster, Michigan Field Organizer for USSA, explained that the purge programs being challenged in the lawsuit could have a devastating impact on many of the youth and college voters that his organization registers and for whom his organization advocates.
"Students and young adults generally are much more transient than older adults, are much more likely to have driver's licenses from different states than their colleges, and are much more likely to live in multi-unit housing, such as dormitories and apartments. Anyone who has lived in these types of housing knows that the mail can sometimes be very unreliable and unpredictable. It's just not fair to deny someone the right to vote just because they are an out-of-state student or they don't get a piece of mail," said Doster.
These voter removal programs could have a very detrimental impact in minority and low-income communities across Michigan. Like students, these communities tend to be more transient and to live in multi-family housing. Thus, voters of color are at risk of facing mass disfranchisement at the polls if something is not done now.
"The state of Michigan is breaking the law. By going forward with these unlawful purges, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that the state is trying to disfranchise voters," said Meredith Bell-Platts, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "With the election just weeks away, the effect of these undemocratic purges could make all the difference in deciding who becomes our next president. It is the fundamental right of every eligible voter to participate in that decision and must be protected from the whims of partisan politicians."
"Purge programs of this type are a blatant violation of federal law barring the immediate removal of voters from the rolls based solely on information suggesting problems with their residence address," concluded Heard. "The state of Michigan should afford these voters the protections that federal law requires."
Attorneys in this case are Heard of Advancement Project; Bell-Platts and Neil Bradley of the ACLU Voting Rights Project; Moss and Michael Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan; and Matthew J. Lund, Mary K. Deon and Deborah Kovsky of Pepper Hamilton LLP.
Legal documents in this case are available at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/gen/36838res20080917.html
More information on the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at: www.aclu.org/voting-rights