How Voter Registration Works in Michigan

Washtenaw County Clerk Explains Process, Background

Note: Answering a question posed by a resident on Facebook, Larry Kestenbaum provided the following explanation about how the voter registration process works in Michigan. Kestenbaum is Washtenaw County Clerk & Register of Deeds, an elected position that oversees elections in this county. His current term ends in 2020. He is also a political historian and maintains The Political Graveyard.

What is Michigan’s policy on removing voters from the rolls for lack of voting? Is it true that people need to vote at least every 6 years to keep their status?

Larry Kestenbaum: The recent Supreme Court ruling notwithstanding, we understand federal law to protect an individual’s right to be registered to vote, and not vote. Hence, in Michigan, failing to vote (by itself) is not allowed to be used as grounds for canceling your voter registration.

Larry Kestenbaum

One way voter registration is canceled: Every month, from the death certificates filed by funeral directors, my office prepares a list of Washtenaw County residents who have died. We transmit it to the city and township clerks, who are required to remove the deceased individuals from the voter rolls.

A second approach typically starts when a city or township clerk sends some kind of message or mailing to a voter, and it is returned as undeliverable by the Postal Service. That is considered to be information that may indicate that the voter has moved away.

Most of the time, nothing further happens. But at the discretion of the clerk, if there is staff time and money to do it, another letter is sent to the missing voter, at the very same address that was undeliverable before, informing them they will be canceled if they don’t contact the office or vote soon.

Of course, if the first letter was undeliverable, the second letter probably will be too, so the voter never sees the notice. Or maybe they do get the second notice (Postal Service being somewhat random), but if they do, it doesn’t apply to them.

The people whose mail was undeliverable, twice, go on what’s called the “countdown clock.” That means, if they don’t vote by the second even-year November election after that, they can be deleted from the voter list.

Obviously the way to avoid this is (1) keep your voter registration and driver’s license address up to date, and (2) vote!

In Michigan, when you update your address with your driver’s license, your voter address gets updated too, and vice versa.

Some history: Voter registration started in Michigan in 1859, apparently as a measure to suppress Irish from voting. For almost a century, you had to register to vote SEPARATELY FOR EACH ELECTION. When the election was over, all the voter registrations would be discarded.

In 1950, Michigan had a close gubernatorial election and a statewide recount. That recount turned up shockingly bad practices in many parts of the state, and kindled a desire to standardize election procedures.

Screenshot of the Washtenaw County Elections Division site.

Under the new election law, permanent voter registration started in 1952. If you’ve been around long enough to be voting since World War II or earlier, and stayed in the same area that whole time, your voter registration dates from 1952.

But back then they were very aggressive about deleting people from the rolls. They had what was called “two-year no-vote”, which meant if you didn’t vote for two years, your registration was deleted. Later, the law was changed to “four-year no-vote” so that people who only voted in presidential elections could remain registered continuously.

At the time, Michigan had statewide elections every year (November of even years, April of odd years). Village elections were held every year in March; city elections were held in April or November. Most school board elections were held annually on the second Monday in June. Township officials were elected on the first Monday in April of every year until 1943, after that, just in April of odd numbered years, until 1964 when they were switched to even-year Novembers. And of course a special election could be called at any time. So there were lots of opportunities to vote.

The next opportunity to vote is the Aug. 7, 2018 primary election. Check out AnnArborVotes.org for information on candidates and ballot proposals.