Ninety days in jail and fines of up to $1,000 were among the penalties considered by East Lansing, Michigan lawmakers this week before they passed a controversial new law that requires landlords to dole out voter registration forms to incoming tenants.
At a public hearing on the newly proposed measure on Tuesday, the city’s Mayor Pro Tem and City Council laid out the nuts and bolts of the ordinance, which clearly is aimed at increasing the number of local students who register to vote.
Under the new law, landlords are required to provide each tenant with a one page information sheet produced by the city clerk, and a Michigan state voter registration application.
Under the original draft of the law, landlords who failed to provide the information were to face a misdemeanor charge that would have carried a minimum $100 and maximum $500 fine, and up to 90 days in jail. By a last minute amendment, lawmakers agreed to a civil penalty in lieu of jail time or community service. However, no specific dollar amount was set for the civil fine. According to a statement by the city attorney, if no specific fine is noted in the ordinance, the amount of the fine will automatically default to $1,000.
During the public hearing prior to the vote, council members and members of the public alike questioned the extent of the penalty associated with the measure. As a result, a significant amount of time for the hearing was spent with proponents of the billbackpedaling on those proposed penalties after an opponent made the case that there is no legal requirement that tenants vote, nor any penalty against citizens for failing to register to vote.
The Mayor Pro Tem stated that, despite the language of the proposed ordinance, he would “be shocked if a judge imposed any jail time” on landlords. He pointed out that community service would be a likely alternative. The city attorney insisted that no prosecutions would be authorized by his office. In response, an opponent argued that the language in the ordinance would continue in perpetuity, whereas the individuals in the city attorney’s office making such promises may not be there next year.
A student government representative from nearby Michigan State University applauded the measure, which he says will make it easier for students to vote, and is widely supported within the 37,000 student population. However, he admitted that he was not aware of the proposed penalty against landlords when the measure was being discussed last fall.
A local property manager who oversees housing for a 50-student fraternity commented at the hearing. Describing herself as a “brick and mortar landlord” rather than a “helicopter parent”, she argued that by forcing students to figure out how to vote on their own, the city is leaving them with a valuable opportunity to gain real world experience.
With the amendment to the penalty, and additional assurances that landlords would not be jailed over the measure, it passed 4-1.
The ordinance is similar to a law passed recently in Madison, Wisconsin.
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