correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Michigan would change the way it enforces its “one-address” law, which requires a voter’s registration and driver’s license addresses to match, and that voters would now be permitted to register to cast ballots at a temporary address even if it did not match the address on their driver’s license. In fact, under the 1999 law, driver’s license addresses are automatically updated when voters register in a new location.
The state of Michigan has agreed to help college students vote while away at school — a key victory ahead of the 2020 presidential election for Democrats who sued last year to overturn a law that made it harder for students to cast ballots.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said Wednesday that her office will begin a major educational effort to help students register to vote at their campus addresses. The announcement was part of a settlement with several groups of College Democrats that had sued to overturn a requirement that students may vote only at the address listed on their driver’s licenses.
Under the agreement, which does not invalidate the law, the state will begin an educational initiative to explain that the statute does not bar students from registering to vote on campus.
Democrats said the settlement will remove what many students perceived was a voting barrier under the law, which they argue was intended to help Republicans win close elections, particularly in the state’s large university towns.
The case in Michigan is one of dozens of legal skirmishes playing out across the country between the two parties over voting access. How these battles are resolved could affect the next presidential contest, particularly if election results are as close as they were in 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Michigan by little more than 10,000 votes.
According to the lawsuit, nearly 595,000 college-aged students were enrolled at Michigan schools in 2016, out of a total voting-age population of about 7.7 million. But because of the frequency of moves by students from dorms to off-campus apartments, many retain legal residency at their parents’ homes elsewhere in Michigan — and said they thought they were unable to vote in either 2016 or 2018 while at school because of the law.
The new education effort by the state is aimed partly at eliminating confusion about whether voters first must change their driver’s license record before registering to vote on campus.
“Your registration had to match with the address on your license,” said Carter Oselett, 20, a junior at Michigan State University and the president of the school’s College Democrats. “So if someone registered at their dorm, but their license had their home address or wherever they moved from, even though they registered at their dorm, if they didn’t update their license, that would lead to them being turned away from the polls.”
In fact, under Michigan’s “one-address” law, if students register to vote using their temporary college address, the act of registration triggers a change of the address for their driver’s license.
With some of the strictest voting laws in the nation, Michigan has had no online voter registration or early voting, and absentee balloting has been permitted only for a limited number of reasons such as a disability or religious observation. Some first-time voters have not been allowed to request absentee ballots — a provision that the College Democrats also said Republicans passed to discourage student voting.
All of that will change this election cycle. Voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative last year calling for no-excuses absentee voting, same-day registration and online registration. That, coupled with the announcement Wednesday about the educational initiative, will help students understand how to register at their campus or hometown address and make it easier for voters to register and cast ballots, officials said.
Benson also announced that mobile voter registration will now be available at the state’s largest campuses, and that students will receive material about how to register and update their addresses.
Benson was elected in last year’s Democratic wave, replacing Ruth Johnson, a Republican whose office called the litigation an “odd lawsuit” given that the law dated to 1999.
Benson’s office issued a statement Wednesday saying the agreement was intended to “better ensure that college-age voters have ready access to Michigan’s voting processes.”
The law was originally championed by Mike Rogers, a Republican state senator at the time, who was preparing to run for Congress in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, home of East Lansing and Michigan State University’s roughly 43,000 students.
At the time, Rogers said that it is a “slap in the face to democracy” to allow students to “be registered in one place and live in another.” He went on to win his first congressional election, in 2000, by 160 votes.
The suit challenging the law was financed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which successfully flipped the 8th District seat in 2018. The seat — as well as the state overall — is expected to be competitive again in 2020.
“Republican voter suppression is very real, which is why we are so proud to have worked with college students to secure this important legal victory for young people in Michigan,” said DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, who represents Illinois’s 17th Congressional District.