In the Fight for Voting Rights, Michigan Is Determined to Win

August 21, 2023 | 9:00 am
from the rocky shores of the Detroit River, the Detroit city skyline is pictured at sunrisegeniuserp/Pixabay
Ingrid Paredes
Engineering Educator

In 2020, Michigan smashed its record for voter turnout. With 5.5 million voters casting ballots across the state, 71% of residents 18 or older participated in the general election. 

Two years later, the state broke records again, with the highest midterm election turnout in the state’s history. Compared to the rest of the country, Michigan saw the highest youth voter turnout and largest increase in the number of youths registered to vote

What’s the secret to the state’s success? In the fight for voting rights, Michigan is determined to win. Through various policy reforms and measures on voting and civic engagement, the state has empowered its voters and higher education institutions. Here’s what we can learn from Michiganders.

Voter-driven ballot proposals expanded voting rights access

One of the keys to Michigan’s success has been the passage of several ballot proposals led by the nonpartisan voter advocacy organization Promote the Vote. Michigan is one of few states to allow for citizen-driven changes to the state’s constitution, and since 2018, Michiganders have used these ballot proposals to increase democratic participation in the state. Just last month, Governor Whitmer signed the most recent of these reforms into law with approval from a hearty 60% of Michigan voters.

Thanks to their efforts, Michiganders have won the following reforms to expand voting rights:

  • access to mail-in ballots for all voters regardless of reason
  • access to free postage and drop boxes for mail-in ballots 
  • nine days for early in-person voting ahead of the election
  • automatic voter registration
  • online voter registration
  • same-day registration
  • expanded forms of voter identification

While it is difficult to measure the direct impact of these reforms, the state’s increase in registration and turnout since their passage is significant. These policies also stand out among a surge in policies meant to suppress the vote elsewhere in the country. 

The state legislature has formalized its youth outreach

Michigan has made a strong commitment to the youth vote, especially on college campuses. To start, the state legislature has a dedicated Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force on youth voter engagement and civic participation. Formed in 2019 by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the task force is a team of 20 to 30 students representing various colleges in Michigan. Each year, the task force publishes recommendations for the state and higher ed administrators to consider to address barriers student voters face. While students comprise roughly 5% of Michigan’s voting population, they face unique barriers to the polls that the task force seeks to address. These issues include ensuring students have proper education about voting on campus, and tackling long lines that students experience at campus polling sites, which drew criticism during the 2022 elections.

The Collegiate Student Advisory Task Force also hosts an annual Michigan Student Voting Summit, focused on empowering students to get out the vote. Hosted in collaboration with Campus Vote Project and ALL In Campus Democracy Challenge, the single-day summit has featured sessions on topics like tackling election misinformation, engaging voters on campuses, and equitable coalition building beyond Election Day. 

“As members of the College Student Advisory Task Force, we know firsthand the impact of youth voter turnout initiatives, sharing our experiences with each other, and building institutional support for voting in our college communities,” said Rose Reilly, a member of the task force and a student at the University of Michigan, in an interview with The Detroit News.

Speaking of the 2022 election cycle, Reilly said, “The work we did last year to gather voting information specific to students and share tips to engage our peers supports a rise in youth voting in our state. We hope that the knowledge we gained and shared in our policy change recommendations contributes to a continuing trend of future youth voter turnout increases.”

Higher education institutions are committed to voting, too

To take their commitment to the student vote further, Michigan has created a statewide Collegiate Voting Challenge. The nonpartisan competition is open to any post-secondary higher education institution, with awards given for the highest campus voter turnout, the most improved campus voter turnout, and highest voter registration rate. The winners receive national recognition from the ALL In Campus Democracy Challenge organizers.

In 2020, 34 Michigan campuses participated in the challenge—representing 76% of Michigan students. All of them are members of the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, hosted by Tufts University. Several of the state’s participating colleges have even shared their student voting data; this transparency promotes a culture around voting that, combined with other efforts from the state and voting rights advocates, makes it no surprise that so many Michigan students are voters!

Get involved in your state

While we may not all live in Michigan, we can all join the fight to protect our voting rights. Stay up to date with your state legislature: are there upcoming bills that would impact your right to vote? Are there ongoing local campaigns to expand voting rights in your area? Consider joining or supporting these causes.

If you are a student or work at a college or university campus, consider asking your institution to join the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE). Hosted by Tufts University, the study can provide your institution with data on students’ voting behavior. Having this data can allow administrators at your institution to make an informed plan to get out the vote for the next election.

And of course, if you’re eligible to vote or will be soon but haven’t registered, find out how!