By Staff Writer
In 2013, the city of East Lansing, Michigan passed an ordinance requiring landlords to provide their tenants with voter information and registration applications when the tenant first moves into the unit. Home to Michigan State University and its roughly 49,000 student population, East Lansing (by a 4 to 1 City Council vote ) took novel steps to help ensure students are able to register to vote at their college residence. While some landlords believed the ordinance was “way off base,” East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett dubbed the ordinance a “no brainer.” Then-City Clerk Marie McKenna noted that the ordinance would remind students who recently moved from one city residence to another to update their registration. Although in the neighboring state of Wisconsin the legislature recently passed legislation preempting an almost identical city ordinance, some Michigan legislators are aiming to expand this landlord duty statewide.
A bill (HB 5790) has recently been introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives that would require all Michigan landlords to provide their tenants with voter registration applications when then tenant takes possession of the premises. While particularly applicable to the more transitory lifestyle of college students, some commentators have noted that this affirmative landlord duty is “also valuable because renters are disproportionately lower-income and/or people of color.” Under the terms of the proposed bill, the Secretary of State would post the required forms and information in an “easily printable format” on its website for landlords to access. The cost of printing the forms would be tax deductible and a landlord who violates this requirement would be subject to a maximum penalty of $1,000.
With both houses of the Michigan legislature currently controlled by a Republican majority (not to mention a sitting Republican governor up for re-election), the prospect of this renter-voter bill becoming law may be slim. A case study of Wisconsin’s Act 76, which prevents localities from requiring landlords to provide voter registration materials to their tenants, demonstrates the contentious political underpinnings of a facially commonsense law. In 2012, the city of Madison passed a local ordinance requiring landlords to provide tenants with voter information and registration forms. Like East Lansing, Madison is a college town with up to 42,000 University of Wisconsin students residing within city limits. Recognizing the unique obstacles student-voters face, Alder Scott Resnick of District 8 explained:
“One of the major issues we found on off-campus polling locations is students either aren’t registered or if they try to register, they don’t have the necessary information to prove their residency. . . we’re looking for other avenues to get students registered to vote.”
Some Madison residents also recognized that the ordinance encouraged all renters to participate in the political process—not just students. “I can easily say that tenants, whether they are students or non-students, are highly underrepresented at all levels of government,” explained Gary Pederson, of Madison. “Anything we can do to motivate tenants to participate in governmental process is a good thing.”
But despite these findings, and despite the Madison Common Council’s adoption of an ordinance, the Republican controlled state legislature passed Act 76 largely along party lines. Included in this act is a prohibition on any locality requiring landlords to distribute materials (such as voter registration forms) to new tenants other than those materials required by state or federal law. Republican Governor Scott Walker signed this bill and it took effect on March 1, 2014. It appears some supporters of Act 76 were concerned about the prospect of city government compelling a business to provide information that is unrelated to the business’s purpose. Wisconsin Sen. Glenn Grothman (R), for example, was especially concerned about how such an ordinance might “intimidate” students into voting, contending:
“[O]ne could argue that by the nature of their relationship a landlord who gives a tenant a registration form is compelling someone to vote. One could see an 18 year old college student feel they were being intimidated into voting with such a requirement.”
So what can Michigan learn from Wisconsin? Perhaps the biggest lesson for Michigan legislators supporting HB 5790 is the need to proactively engage landlords about their “slippery slope” concerns in order to reduce the political backlash from a relatively benign proposal. Some East Lansing landlords had misgivings about city government mandating new landlord obligations, similar to the complaints voiced by Madison lessors. For example, local realty agent Matt Hagan argued that it is not a landlord’s position to either distribute voter registration materials or face a penalty. Said Hagan, “If you start putting things on us, where does it stop? . . . I don’t mind doing it . . . I just don’t want to be required to do it.” Working to reassure the landlord-coalition that the state is not embarking upon a “parade of horribles” agenda will go a long way toward reducing the politics behind a relatively narrow proposal aimed exclusively at ensuring traditionally underrepresented constituents are registered to vote.
Ultimately, current political winds suggest Michigan faces an uphill battle getting this renter-voter bill signed into law. But with a governor in office who has shown a willingness to veto election laws many consider unduly restrictive, could Michigan be the first state to experiment with a renter-voter registration system? Perhaps one day “renter-voter” will be known as the new “motor-voter.”