STORIES FROM THE CAMPAIGN
Longtime Detroit resident Michelle Mills never imagined she would have difficulty exercising her right to vote.
Why should she?
After living for a time in New York City, she’s been at the same address since returning to her hometown in 2001. And she’s been registered to vote the whole time, conscientiously casting a ballot whenever elections rolled around for the past four decades.
“With the possible exception of a time or two, I’ve voted in every election since I turned 18,” says Mills, a floral designer who owns her own business. “As an African American, I come from a generation that understands the struggles our parents and grandparents went through in order to guarantee we have access to the vote.”
It is a struggle that continues for some. Which is why Mills started the nonprofit organization Got ID Detroit, which works to provide identification for low-income city residents in order to help them avoid any difficulty when they show up at the polls. Photo ID is not required in Michigan, but voters can sometimes encounter difficulty if they don’t have any.
“Voting is an issue that’s very near and dear to my heart,” says Mills when asked why she started an organization dedicated to helping others exercise their right to vote.
It is also the reason she became so distraught when she unexpectedly encountered difficulty exercising that same right herself.
During the 2016 presidential election, Mills, as had always been the case in the past, was able to cast her ballot without a hitch.
“It never occurred to me that I would encounter any kind of problem,” she says. But when she showed up at her usual polling place for the 2017 August primary, she was told that she wasn’t on the voter rolls in the precinct she’d always voted in.
“They insisted my registration had been changed to a different address, to a place I’d never lived,” she recalls.
When an election worker suggested that she go to that polling location, Mills refused.
“There is no way I’d ever vote in a precinct I don’t live in,” says Mills.
She instead insisted on being given what’s known as a provisional ballot. She also insisted that election officials correct the error regarding her removal from the voter rolls so there would be no future difficulties.
“They promised me that they would fix the problem,” she says. “The woman at the Board of Elections said, ‘I’m correcting it right now.’”
But two months later, in mid-October, when she went online to check, she still was not registered to vote.
Thinking that she might be prohibited from casting a ballot in Detroit’s mayoral election, Mills says she “panicked.”
“I couldn’t imagine not being able to vote,” she says.
She was eventually able to get her name added back to the voter rolls before Election Day, at the correct address, but says it took her “hours and hours and hours over the course of several days to make sure I’d be able to vote in the November election.”
The whole experience was deeply disturbing.
“No one should ever have to go through what I had to go through just to be able to vote.”
GROSSE POINTE PARK
For Grosse Pointe Park resident Angela Willson, a single mom with four children and two jobs, free time is a luxury that is in very short supply.
To make sure that she’s there during the day for her kids, Willson, who is a nurse anesthetist, works the night shift at a Detroit hospital. To help make ends meet, she typically also works one or two days a week at a Detroit surgery center.
Throw in all the hours spent attending to the needs of her children, who range in age from 7 to 13, and doing all the tasks necessary to keep a household functioning – laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, helping with homework, shuttling the kids to and from activities, and countless other chores — there’s precious little time for much else, including sleep.
“I don’t sleep a whole lot,” says Willson, 42. “I nap when I can.”
Despite all that, she almost always tries to make room in her packed schedule to vote. Doing so is important for a lot of reasons, including “modeling” for her children what responsible citizenship looks like.
“I think it’s important for children to see everybody participating in the voting process,” explains Willson. “Not everyone in the world has the right to vote. So, even when I don’t feel strongly about a candidate or an issue, I still go to the polls. And I take my children with me. Even when they were all very young, I’d take them. Hopefully that is one more thing that they will learn from me and carry on doing when they become adults.”
Willson estimates that she makes it to the polls for every eight out of 10 elections, even if that means standing in what are frequently long lines, with the kids in tow, waiting to cast her ballot. But, no matter how hard she strives to make sure her voice is heard, there is still the occasional election where the complete lack of time simply does not allow her the opportunity to make it to a polling place.
Which is one reason Willson supports changing Michigan’s election law to allow for what’s commonly known as “no excuse” absentee voting, which essentially allows any eligible voter to cast an absentee ballot, whatever their reason for doing so.
“I consider voting important enough that I do everything I can to make it to the polls, but sometimes that just isn’t possible,” explains Willson. “For those times, having the option of casting an absentee ballot means I would still be able to make sure my voice is heard.”
“As a busy, working mom, anytime there is a way to take something off my plate of things that need to be done, that is a good thing,” she says. “And being able to fill out an absentee ballot, at my convenience, that would be ideal.”
DIANA YOUSSEF FARAJ
As the child of refugees who fled Lebanon’s civil war during the 1980s for the safety and political stability of America, Diana Youssef Faraj learned from an early age to cherish democracy. Her father had been politically active in his homeland, and landed in prison for a time as a result. So he made certain his daughter didn’t take her rights for granted.
“I was raised to be very politically aware, very socially aware,” says Faraj, who was born and raised in Chicago, but has called Dearborn Heights home for more than a decade. At 28, she describes herself as a “career student” who has worked a series of lowing jobs, from waitress to paralegal, as she plugged away at college.
“My parents found privileges here in America they didn’t have in Lebanon, and they made me very aware of that. They always stressed that voting is a way to help look out for you community, and to try and gain an equal footing in this country.”
The importance of those lessons in civic engagement passed down from her parents, and her determination to uphold them, helps explain her intense commitment to voting. It also provides some insight as to why she became so distraught when she showed up at the polls twice in 2016 only to be told both times that she wasn’t eligible to vote.
“During the August primary, when I went to my regular polling location to vote, they told me I wasn’t registered, that I wasn’t in the system,” Faraj recalls. “I thought maybe I’d made a mistake and didn’t re-register when I updated my driver’s license.”
She was given a provisional ballot and a voter registration form, which she filled out and turned in on the spot. Which is why Faraj was so shocked and dismayed when told again she still wasn’t registered when she showed up to vote in November’s general election to help select the country’s next president.
“As woman, as a Muslim, as an Arab America, it was already the most difficult election in my lifetime,” Faraj says. “And then they say I’m not registered to vote – again.”
Her dismay jumped off the charts when told she’d been removed from the rolls because she’s sent a letter to the clerk asking to be removed. Even if she’d known that was even possible, that thought of doing so was unfathomable.
“At that point,” she says, “I became irate.”
Her distress grew even worse when told that, according to the records, she hadn’t voted since 2006.
“It was the most horrible feeling ever,” she says. “I started crying, and saying this is ridiculous. I vote in every election.”
Of particular concern to her was what others would think if that misinformation was ever provided to others.
As crazy as it might sound, Michigan election law can actually force a person to vote in a place they no longer live. Washtenaw County resident Steven Friday learned the hard way just what that means.
When Steven Friday moved from Dexter Township to the City of Dexter in Washtenaw County in mid-September of 2016, he thought he’d followed the proper procedures to ensure there would be no problem voting come Election Day.
He was wrong.
“I’ve taken voting very seriously my entire life,” says Friday, who is 51 and has a master’s degree in social work. “If I didn’t vote in an election it was because either I was in the hospital or someone I loved was in the hospital.”
After moving to a new home, Friday did what he thought was necessary to make sure he’d be able to cast a ballot on Election Day. However, despite having gone online at the Secretary of State’s website to update his driver’s license and change his address for voting purposes, Friday was prohibited from voting where he actually lives.
When told that he wasn’t on the city’s voting rolls, Friday asked for a provisional ballot. The request was denied. Instead, says Friday, he was instructed that he’d have to go to his former polling place in Dexter Township if he wanted to cast a ballot.
Aside from the inconvenience, the whole idea of being told by election officials to vote where he no longer lived struck Friday as being just plain wrong.
“I wanted to vote in the city I lived in,” says Friday. “I had neighbors running for city council, and I wanted to vote for them. As a taxpayer, I should be able to vote for the people who will represent me, not for officials or issues in a town where I no longer live.”
“It is really ridiculous,” he adds. “What are they thinking? It is not like I’d buy a house just to move to a city in able to vote there.”
The husband of a school teacher, Friday served in the Air Force for four years. The way he sees it, voting is both a civic duty and a way to have some “semblance” of control over how our government at every level is run.
“My family has always emphasized the importance of voting,” he says.
He’d just like to see a system in place that makes more sense.
“With the technology we have today,” he observes, “there’s no reason to make someone vote where they no longer live.”
Not every election is a high-profile event involving the selection of a president, governor or mayor. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t particular issues on ballots that can be very important to individual voters.
For Grand Rapids resident Jonathan Day, an example of just such a circumstance occurred during the August 2016 primary. In that election, Day wanted to have a say in a millage proposal that, if approved by voters, would generate money from taxpayers for construction of bike paths.
Day, 30, is an avid cyclist who very much wanted to support the measure. But when he showed up to vote, he was told that he wasn’t registered.
He’d moved six months prior to the election, and assumed his voter information had been updated. However, aside from not being registered to vote in his new precinct, Day was told he wasn’t registered to vote at all. Considering that he’d voted in previous elections, that seemed odd.
“I consider voting to be a civic duty,” says Day, a fulltime student at Ferris State University. “I believe it is important to make our voices heard, not just in national elections but also in state and local elections as well, because change cascades from the bottom up, not the top down. Beyond that, voting is one way to make sure your interests are being represented.”
Even if that interest is in something as simple as riding your bike safely on specially constructed paths.
If nothing else, Day should have been provided a provisional ballot. But that option wasn’t presented to him, so he went home frustrated. But he was also determined to make sure he didn’t confront the same problem when the general election took place in November.
The same day he wasn’t allowed to vote in the primary, Day filled out a new voter form. He received his registration card in the mail three weeks later. But when November rolled around, and he showed up to again vote in the same location he’d previously been turned away from, Day says he was told once more he wasn’t on the voting rolls.
It wasn’t until he pulled out his voter registration card – something he shouldn’t have to do – that poll workers were suddenly able to determine that he was indeed eligible to vote.
Now he wonders if he was also actually on the rolls when turned away while attempting to vote in the August primary, when he wanted to have a say in an issue near and dear to him.
Leila Vallarino turned 18 during her senior year of high school in Grand Rapids. One of the first things she did after hitting that milestone was go online at the Michigan Secretary of State website to begin the voter registration process. The thought of finally being able to cast a ballot when Election Day came was something she eagerly anticipated.
“I come from a family that is very politically active,” explains Vallarino, who’s now 22. “And I was always encouraged by my mom and stepdad to keep up with what’s going on politically. So I was excited about being able to vote for the first time.”
After graduating from high school she moved to Ann Arbor, where she majored in neuroscience and minored in women’s studies at the University of Michigan. It wasn’t until shortly before the November election, however, that she went online to check her registration that she realized that she was still registered to vote in Grand Rapids.
When she asked for an absentee ballot, the request was declined. Under current Michigan law, first-time voters who don’t initially register in person are prohibited from submitting absentee ballots.
“I was told that my identity has to be verified in person,” recalls Vallarino.
The problem was, she had no car. She didn’t even have gas money.
“I was a typical college student,” she says.
So getting back to Grand Rapids to cast her vote wasn’t possible.
As a result, Vallarino was unable to participate in the first election she should have been eligible for.
“I was really looking forward to having my voice heard,” she says. “Not being able to vote was really, really crummy. One of the reasons I was so disappointed was that I very much wanted to be able to vote for people who would be supportive of policies that help college students in general.”
At the time, she says, she talked to several fellow students who were also confronting obstacles when attempting to vote.
“I definitely wasn’t the only person I knew who was having the same sort of problem,” she says. “We all felt like we’d been screwed over, that our voices had been silenced.”
Having graduated from college in 2016, Vallarino now lives in Southfield and works doing development for a Detroit-area nonprofit. Since her initial difficulty voting, she’s tried to make certain that the right to vote would not be interfered with again.
But the deep disappointment she experienced the first time she tried to vote, and was prevented from doing, has stuck with her. And she doesn’t want others to have to go through the same thing.
“It was not a good feeling at all,” she says.