Why a federal judge had to rein in GOP Secretary of State Ruth Johnson
Published: October 10, 2012
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson stands there, trying to deny the undeniable.
She has just suffered what should be an embarrassing defeat in U.S. District Court. After a daylong hearing last Friday, Judge Paul Borman immediately issues an order for Johnson and the state elections officials she oversees to remove a controversial question from a few million forms that potential voters have to fill out when they go to the polls on Election Day.
"Are you a United States citizen?"
At first blush, it might not be readily apparent exactly why that simple and seemingly appropriate query might have created such an uproar, prompting a diverse group to sue Johnson.
Voters are supposed to be American citizens. There's no question about that.
So, you might ask, what's the problem with having voters affirm that in order to obtain a ballot?
But once you dig into it, that apparently innocent question ends up being much more complicated than it seems — complicated enough to have ended up in front of a federal judge to get it all sorted out.
Johnson takes the loss with apparent grace, congratulating the attorneys who have defeated her, shaking their hands and offering what must be a forced smile, because this has not been a good day.
She didn't want to be here at all. Lawyers from the Michigan Attorney General's Office attempted to have the proceedings take place without her, arguing that she had immunity under the 11th Amendment's limits on citizens' ability to sue states. In addition, the AG's Office claimed, Chris Thomas, a longtime bureaucrat who heads Michigan's Bureau of Elections, would be able to answer all questions.
On that point, at least, it turns out that they are right. Johnson never offers a word of testimony. She sits at a table, taking copious notes, filling page after page in a legal pad, preparing. But she's never called to the witness stand.
Neither are any of the plaintiffs, a group that includes several private citizens, one county clerk, an SEIU local, the nonprofit group Latin Americans for Social and Economic Justice (LA SED) and the ACLU.
After Judge Borman has eviscerated the supposed justification for placing that question on the voting form, Johnson gamely walks over to congratulate Mary Ellen Gurewitz and the other attorney representing the coalition. Johnson, like a good soldier, then squares her shoulders and, with the same forced smile plastered on her face, turns to face a clutch of reporters wanting to know what her response is.
She's disappointed, of course.
Democracy is a sacred thing, and every vote wrongly cast by a noncitizen is an affront to the process. And who knows, maybe there is an election somewhere, sometime, when a single vote makes a difference.
Of course, as the earlier testimony has revealed, her office has been able to identify only a handful of instances where it's been proved a noncitizen actually voted.
Which brings us to the question the Metro Times wants to ask. The question about Johnson's supposed neutrality.
She's a solid Republican, for sure. That's no secret. But as secretary of state, when it comes to overseeing elections, she's supposed put party allegiances aside and act more like any umpire, making sure everything is fair and square so that one side isn't given an unfair advantage over the other. Operating as a political hack isn't supposed to be part of the job description.
But when she put the weight of her office behind a package of bills introduced in the Legislature — a package that included the citizen-check box — Ruth Johnson opened herself up to criticism that she was trying to tip the table in the direction of the GOP when voters go to the polls on Nov. 6 to select our president.
It's not just Democrats who've cried foul.
When the Legislature held hearings on the issue, the League of Women Voters — an organization that's about as middle-of-the-road as they come — began speaking out against what Johnson and the Republican-controlled Legislature were attempting.
If there were some Dems on board initially, as Johnson says, they jumped ship by the time they had to say yea or nay.
Michigan isn't the only place this kind of stuff is hitting the fan. Around the country, in states that are under Republican control, laws have been enacted that critics say are attempts at voter suppression.
Not all voters, mind you. Just those who are likely to cast a ballot for Democrats: students and senior citizens, the poor and minorities.
"Ahead of the 2012 elections, a wave of legislation tightening restrictions on voting has suddenly swept across the country," the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan project at New York University School of Law, reported last year. "More than 5 million Americans could be affected by the new rules already put in place [in 2011] — a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections."
Liberals are clear as to why they think it's happening. Conservatives have been citing it as a goal for decades.
"I don't want everybody to vote," Paul Weyrich, a leading conservative strategist, told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "... As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
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