In 2018, by a two-to-one margin, Michigan voters approved Proposal 3, a ballot initiative expanding voter rights. Among other things, it legalized no-reason absentee voting and the right to register to vote on Election Day at your city or township clerk’s office. Rick Kinas of Kalamazoo thought same-day registration sounded like a good idea, “in terms of allowing people not to be disenfranchised in the case they hadn’t gotten quite coordinated.”
But Rick has a friend who happens to be a former township clerk. She voted for Proposal 3 but with reservations about same-day registration since there’s no time to verify the voter’s address with a letter. Rick’s friend wondered if this could lead to fraudulent registrations. When Rick asked if she’d heard about any issues since the last election, “she said, ‘I don’t have any idea, but that seems like that’s a good question.'"
For this story we talked to several people who know Michigan’s election system well. They said checks in the system prevent state residents from registering twice on Election Day and double voting. A registered voter who cast a ballot at their polling place, who then tried register somewhere else and vote again would at the latest be caught at the end of the day. An out-of-state resident who managed to vote in Michigan could certainly be caught and prosecuted. And they added, the low payoff and high penalty for voter fraud has kept it exceedingly rare.
Kalamazoo Charter Township Clerk Mark Miller gives the example of a Michigan resident and would-be double registrant who is “registered somewhere else and they’ve already voted somewhere else," at another clerk's office, "and then they come to my office to attempt to fraudulently register and vote again.”
Miller says he’d take that person’s voter application, sit down at his computer and call up the Qualified Voter File or QVF. It’s a statewide database of Michigan’s voters. It’s also “the only way in which a clerk can issue a ballot,” Miller added.
Miller says, when he puts this applicant’s information into the QVF, “that will immediately give me an alert that that person has already voted in this election.”
That’s how Michigan avoids double registration and voting among state residents. But what about a would-be double registrant from out-of-state? For example, a person who owns property in Michigan, who has a bill from that property they can use for proof of address. It’s harder to proof the system against this kind of fraud. And yet, our experts say, it’s still very rare. “There’s two things to keep in mind there,” Michigan Department of State spokesman Jake Rollow said.
He said the first lines of defense are the city and township clerks who register voters on Election Day.
“Particularly in smaller jurisdictions, they know their communities quite well and so they may be very aware of sort of who’s coming in and where they actually reside,” he said.
But mainly, Rollow added, voter fraud of any sort is just not an attractive crime – since one vote is not likely to sway an election. Yet if you’re caught voting illegally, you can and likely will be charged with a felony. And Rollow adds, since voting leaves a paper trail, it’s an easy crime to prove.
“This is like robbing a bank and maybe you wore a ski mask, right? But in the vault you left a piece of paper that said ‘I just robbed this bank, this is my name, this is my address, this is how you can find me.’ That’s essentially what happens when somebody votes twice,” Rollow said.
Rollow added that after an election, many private citizens, state agencies and groups look over voter records – which are public – in search of fraud. As an extra measure, Michigan and 29 other states belong to the nonprofit Electronic Registration and Information Center or ERIC.
“That group proactively sends around to state election agencies, any voter that they believe may have voted twice so that can be checked against voter records,” Rollow said.
Despite former President Trump’s claims of fraud in Michigan’s November 2020 election, Rollow says the state's found just four alleged cases of attempted illegal voting in all of last year. And two of those took place before the November election. As of last December, the Attorney General’s office was also investigating a report of irregularities in voter registration forms submitted in Muskegon before the November election. But Rollow says the state has found no fraud of any kind resulting from same-day registration.
Rollow says voter registration on Election Day is a secure way to help as many people as possible take part in the democratic process. He says about 30,000 citizens who cast a ballot on November 3, 2020 registered that day. That’s only about one-half of one percent of all the votes cast.
“But still, that’s 30,000 voters,” Rollow said. “That’s 30,000 more people who made their voice heard in the election and hopefully will stay engaged in democracy going forward.”
Our question-asker Rick Kinas, who wondered if same-day registration had led to fraud, says he is confident the voting system is secure.
“I’m very proud of the folks that have taken a real effort in terms of making sure that our democracy is working,” he added.