Longtime Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin pioneered voting reform | Opinion

Before the 2000 presidential election, Secretaries of State were largely unknown to the broader public — at least when it came to their responsibility for elections.

Then elections in 2000 and 2020 made it clear that Secretaries of State play a critical and essential role in defending our democracy.

But even now, I’d bet most people don’t know that each modern secretary owes a debt to late Michigan Secretary of State Richard H. Austin.

Our 'most precious right'

Austin took a dogged, unique and dynamic path to elective office. The son of a single mother, he graduated at the top of his Cass Tech High School class and overcame racism to become Michigan’s first African American certified public accountant.

After two narrow losses for other offices — including a Congressional seat he lost by only 40 votes to John Conyers — Austin was elected Secretary of State in 1970. He ultimately served a record 24 years as the first African American Secretary of State, not just in Michigan, but the nation. He became known as “Mr. Traffic Safety” for spearheading the passage of Michigan’s seat belt law. Austin also streamlined SoS operations, pushing for drivers to get vehicle registration tabs each year instead of always paying for a new license plate.

But Austin believed voting was a citizen’s “most precious right,” and his focus was often on how he could improve our electoral system.

Union and polical leaders walk together leading the Labor Day Parade down Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit Sept. 5, 1988.  Left to right, Highland Park Mayor Martha Scott; Detroit Councilwoman Maryann Mahaffey, Tom Turner, President of Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO; AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland; Michigan AFL-CIO President Frank Garrison; UAW President Owen Bieber; UAW VP Don Ephlin; Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin and Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.  TONY SPINA/Detroit Free Press

Motor Voter started here

I recently sat down with Chris Thomas, whom Austin appointed as Michigan’s Director of Elections in 1981. Thomas held that job for 36 years. He’s now a fellow at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center.

When Austin took office, Thomas told me, “The only way you could register was going [in person] to a clerk’s office. There was no mail registration.”

He also reminded me that at the time, each of the more than 1,500 local clerks in Michigan maintained their own separate and distinct voter registration lists in 800 different formats, a patchwork system that often led to hundreds of thousands of duplicate voter registration entries.

Austin proposed a radical change to Michigan election law: Motor Voter, pioneered here in Michigan nearly two decades before it became the national standard.

Austin wanted to allow Michigan citizens to register to vote in Secretary of State branches when renewing their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

Voters would complete a registration form at a local Secretary of State branch, which would send the form to the appropriate county clerk, who would forward the form to the appropriate city or township clerk to complete the voter’s registration.

This proposal initially did not win Austin friends. He fought the Legislature for three years before Motor Voter passed in 1975.

But when it passed, it was an instant success. In the first month, 35,000 voters registered — and the strongest numbers were from rural communities in our state.

President Bill Clinton signed this special Michigan innovation into law nationwide in 1993 as the National Voter Registration Act. Last year, over 90% of voter registration transactions in Michigan occurred through our office, now utilizing a computerized process.

Supreme Court Justice Otis M. Smith, Judge Damon Keith, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Secretary of State Richard Austin.  Photo is copy of original.
Supreme Court Justice Otis M. Smith, Judge Damon Keith, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Secretary of State Richard Austin. Photo is copy of original.

Maintaining the voter rolls

Not content, Austin pushed forward with a proposal to streamline the state’s many separate and distinct voter registration lists, centralizing the rolls, and dramatically changing local clerks’ roles.

The need for reform gained momentum, and what is now known as the Qualified Voter File passed the Legislature on Dec. 9, 1994, in Austin’s final days in office.

The QVF, populated with the registration of every voter in Michigan, cuts down on duplicate records, makes it possible to identify unique voters and streamlines the process of maintaining our voter rolls.

By the time the QVF launched in 1998, 800,000 duplicate records had been identified and removed. After the 2000 presidential election, the system was touted as a national model by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter because it is so straightforward that “any state can copy it.”

‘Your vote ... will influence your world’

Austin’s pioneering efforts opened the door for millions of voters to have their voices heard. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has continued that work, and today, Michigan ranks No. 4 in the nation in percentage of eligible citizens registered to vote.

With the passage of state Rep. Betsy Coffia’s preregistration bill for 16 and 17 year olds, these numbers will only grow stronger in future years.

Austin’s efforts also strengthened the process of maintaining accurate voter rolls, making it easier to remove registrations of voters who have died or moved.

A federal judge recently noted that Michigan “is consistently among the most active states in the United States in cancelling the registrations of deceased individuals.”

Ultimately, amid this divisive presidential election year, I hope voters around our country will remember Austin’s timeless words that “your vote more than any single effort will influence your world.”

If you would like to learn more about how you can cast your ballot, please visit Michigan.gov/vote.

Aghogho Edevbie
Aghogho Edevbie

Aghogho Edevbie is Michigan's deputy secretary of state. Submit a letter to the editor at freep.com/letters and we may publish it online or in print.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Voting in Michigan changed because of SOS Richard Austin