“For folks like me who are trying to take policy out into the world, it’s nice to have a home to come back to. To know that there is a community of people who are really interested in answering the policy questions. When I come back, it’s clearly an academic environment, but an academic environment in which people are focused on getting it right, in achieving good policy that advances values that we share.”
Instrumental in passing Proposal 3, which heavily expanded access to the ballot in Michigan, Sharon Dolente (MPP/JD ‘04) is an expert at creating voting rights policy.
“Although Americans identify in our tribes, or our camps, or our political parties,” Dolente said, “there is a shared American value around access to the ballot, and that includes in Michigan.”
Dolente emphasized the need to talk to the public about shared values when engaging them about voting rights. “If we spend too much of our time putting it into or allowing others to talk about [voting rights] in partisan terms, it really undermines [those values],” she said.
Dolente spent almost four years at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan as their voting rights strategist. Before she came to the role, there had been unsuccessful attempts to advance bipartisan voting reforms through the Michigan Legislature. She recognized a new strategy was needed, and worked with her team to move their efforts to the ballot box through what was to be known as Promote the Vote or Proposal 3 of 2018.
“There was very little opposition to the ballot initiative,” she said. “Almost no money was spent to oppose it. It won with two-thirds of the vote and passed in 80 of 83 Michigan counties… There wasn’t a lot of controversy.”
Thanks to Dolente and her team’s hard work, Proposal 3 passed, implementing same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and other important voting rights initiatives. In 2021, Dolente received the Community Ally Award from the Mary Turner Center for Advocacy, recognizing her work to revolutionize Michigan’s voting laws and making it easier to vote.
Dolente credits the Ford School for teaching her how to creatively find solutions to overcome policy barriers.
Recognizing that it can be difficult to change policy in a large and bureaucratic institution such as a government, Dolente recommends “looking for opportunities and solutions and being creative.” As Dolente sees it, the Ford School allows students to add tools to their toolbox that they can use as advocates “to advance good policy.”
Now, as a senior advisor at Promote the Vote, Dolente enjoys regularly returning to the Ford School to engage with current students and faculty.
“This is a home that I can come to where I can talk to people about policy and we won’t immediately get worried or tripped up or confined by the challenges of implementation or the challenges of politics.”