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‘A historic new chapter for voting’: MI Senate panel holds first hearing on election reform package


‘A historic new chapter for voting’: MI Senate panel holds first hearing on election reform package

Jun 08, 2023 | 9:22 am ET
By Jon King
‘A historic new chapter for voting’: MI Senate panel holds first hearing on election reform package
Getty Images

A package of bills that would implement election reforms passed by voters last year got their first hearing Wednesday before the Michigan Senate Elections and Ethics Committee.

Chaired by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), the committee heard from election officials and experts on the eight bills that would, among other things, create a minimum of nine days of early voting, provide prepaid postage for certain election documents and require absent voter drop boxes. 

Each of these initiatives were required under Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment expanding voting rights that Michiganders overwhelmingly passed in the November 2022 election.

‘A historic new chapter for voting’: MI Senate panel holds first hearing on election reform package
Jeremy Moss | Courtesy photo

“We are writing a historic new chapter for voting in the state of Michigan,” said Moss. “This proposal was approved by 60% of Michigan voters last year. That’s a reminder to all of us that as Michigan faced some of the most intense scrutiny in the nation over the last couple of years, voting rights remain popular here in Michigan. Despite those who push contrived chaos, Michiganders overwhelmingly want to reduce barriers to their ballots and increase access to voting.”

Moss is the main sponsor of the bipartisan bill package (Senate Bills 367, 368, 369, 370, 371, 372, 373 and 374) and said he convened a work group of election administrators and voting rights experts to help draft the legislation that would enact the various provisions of the proposal. 

Specifically, the bills would:

  • Implement nine consecutive days of early voting for statewide elections starting at least on the second Saturday before the election and ending the Sunday before the election;  
  • Establish sentencing guidelines for certain early voting violations under the Michigan election law;
  • Create a single application for voters to automatically receive absent voter ballots for all future elections;  
  • Provide for prepaid return postage on certain election documents and signature matching/curing requirements for absent voter ballot documents;  
  • Expand permissible options for photo identity used in voting-related purposes;  
  • Require each municipality in Michigan to have at least one accessible absent voter ballot drop box for every 15,000 registered voters in the area; and 
  • Increase the number of active registered voters in a single election precinct from 2,999 to 5,000 active registered voters for cities, wards, townships, or villages that are divided into two or more election precincts. 

The first to testify in support of the legislation was Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

“The bills that you’re discussing today and in the weeks ahead will carry out the will of the voters while providing the flexibility needed to clerks in counties, cities, and townships of all sizes and geographies around the state,”

she said. “They are and reflect national best practices that have bipartisan support from Kentucky to Minnesota and everywhere else.”

Benson added that she was hopeful that the bills, especially those involving early voting, were enacted as quickly as possible, as election administrators around the state are already preparing for the presidential primary election in February of 2024.

“The more clarity and support from all of you, the sooner is the better,” she said.

However, there was some dissension early on in the hearing over the early voting bill, when state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.), who formerly served as Michigan’s Secretary of State, questioned why communities were being allowed up to 29 days of early voting under Senate Bill 367.

Moss, who sponsored that bill, answered that the amendment passed by voters last year mandated at least nine days of early voting, but his legislation stipulates that individual communities could decide to have as many as 29. Johnson said that would result in unequal access for those communities who couldn’t afford to host that many days of early voting.

“I hear your concerns,” said Moss. “This is just the constraints of the language as passed by 60% of the voters that says at least nine or at minimum nine. This language in the law reflects what’s in the Constitution now.”

‘A historic new chapter for voting’: MI Senate panel holds first hearing on election reform package
Sen. Ruth Johnson at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Johnson then took aim at the Proposal 2 campaign.

“We know that the ads cost millions of dollars for this proposition, and they were full of deceits and lies,” she said. 

“I don’t want to re-litigate the campaign because the ballot proposal passed. We’re here charged with implementing the bills associated with the language that is now in the Constitution,” replied Moss.

“And I agree, but when you say, and others say 60% of the people wanted, 80% of them did not,” said Johnson. “It was based on lies. You do not have to show photo ID to vote. Eighty percent of the public, Democrats, Independents, Republicans and minorities, support that. Those were passed based on lies and deceptions. Yes, they’re the law and I’ll do what the law is. But when people say and brag about that, make sure you add in that we did it with bad information on millions of dollars on primetime TV.”

Johnson was referring to Senate Bill 373, which would expand photo identification options for voters beyond those that are state-issued and could include photo IDs from the military, tribal agencies, local governments, educational institutions or a passport. It would also allow those without a photo ID to sign an affidavit of their eligibility and then vote a regular ballot. Previously, a provisional ballot would be supplied in that circumstance and require the voter to return within six calendar days with documentation for their vote to be counted.

Johnson later questioned the security of photo identification issued by agencies that didn’t have access to federal databases, but supporters of the legislation said the ID being asked for at polling places was merely to ensure the identity of the voter and in no way was valid to actually register to vote.

“What the election inspectors are supposed to do when somebody presents a photo ID is to see whether the picture on the photo ID matches the person who is standing in front of you. It’s not supposed to prove anything else,” said Erica Peresman from Promote the Vote, the organization that crafted and shepherded Proposal 2 through the election process. “People do not need to prove their citizenship when they come into a polling place.”

As to the issue of unequal access for some communities when it comes to the number of early voting days, Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, testifying on behalf of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said there was a distinction between equality and equity.

“I (administer) a jurisdiction of close to 90,000 registered voters, and I expect 18,000 people in a large election to want to early vote,” he said. “So restricting my community to nine days where that might create lines does not create equity for different sized communities that might be able to accommodate their voters who would want to vote early during the nine days.”

Peresman also said that the early voting bill provides clarity regarding the three different options for municipalities to choose from. 

“So every municipality has to offer early voting for the minimum number of days and hours, but it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition for Michigan, because that would not have worked for Michigan,” she said. “Rather, each municipality has the flexibility to choose how they will conduct early voting. So they can either do it entirely on their own as they do for election day, or they can collaborate with other municipalities in the county or with their county clerk to do early voting.”

Peresman said that if two or more municipalities in the same county decide to collaborate with each other, and if the county clerk is willing, they will enter into a municipal agreement to jointly offer early voting at a shared site or sites. If, on the other hand, a county clerk wants to offer early voting, then they’ll enter into a county agreement with one or more municipalities to conduct it for them with the assistance of the local clerks at a shared site or sites. 

“This collaboration is going to allow for economies of scale,” Peresman said. “Instead of each municipality having to hire their own poll workers and provide their own tabulators and supervise early voting for nine days, the municipalities or the municipalities and the county clerk would share poll workers and tabulators and supervisory duties, saving the municipality money and making administration easier for the local clerks. But crucially, each municipality gets to decide which version of this they want to do for conducting early voting so they can decide what is best for the municipality and for their voters.”

Another issue that garnered discussion was Senate Bill 372, which would require every municipality to have at least one absent voter ballot drop box for every 15,000 registered voters. It would also prescribe that the Michigan Secretary of State would facilitate the procurement and distribution of the drop boxes, as well as be responsible for funding the cost of delivery and repair. Further, the drop boxes would need to be accessible 24 hours a day for 40 days before each election and be accessible until 8 p.m. on Election Day. It also removes the requirement for video monitoring of certain drop boxes, making it optional for municipal clerks.

On that last point the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton), acknowledged that many people wanted video monitoring to be a part of the discussion. 

“Just know that this is a conversation that is ongoing as we are finding ways to balance cost and security for some municipalities,” he said. “Some rural municipalities in particular don’t exactly know that they can cover the cost of a 24-hour monitoring system. So that is something that we are continuing to further the advancement of conversation.”

While the bill retains the requirement for documenting absent voter ballot retrieval from drop boxes not located at a clerk’s office or satellite office, it adds a requirement to document the retrieval of absent voter ballot applications.

“As we all know, drop boxes were conveniently used by thousands of voters across the state in the last several elections,” said Camilleri. “It is a way that voters feel that they can access the ballot box in a timely fashion that fits their schedule. And so, as we are expanding this process for so many Michiganders everywhere, it is not only going to be more convenient, it is going to make voting as simple and secure as possible. I’m very excited to be working on this bill, and hopefully we’ll see this through to a solution that fits everybody’s needs.”

Johnson, however, reiterated the need for round-the-clock monitoring.

“When I was Secretary of State, the largest voting bloc in the state of Michigan had 500,000 registered voters, and that was Detroit,” she said. “And they were number one in making sure every single one of those drop boxes had a monitor on it so people could watch it. It not only gave people confidence that there was no ballot box stuffing, but it also protected the ballots that were put in those boxes. I think when we’re looking at maybe half the people voting absentee, we have to make sure that we have that kind of checks and balances.

“I think if we’re going to put money someplace, making sure that those boxes are protected, the votes in them, and making sure they’re not stuffed, are both really important,” said Johnson.

The legislative package discussed on Wednesday is the latest to work towards implementing Proposal 2. Earlier in the day, the full Senate voted to pass Senate Bill 339, sponsored by Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak), to establish a state-funded electronic ballot tracking system for both absent voter ballot applications and absent voter ballots. 

The Senate in April passed Senate Bill 259, sponsored by Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren). It allows for absentee voter ballots from military members, their spouses and voting-age dependents to still be counted if they are signed and dated by Election Day and received up to six days after the election. 

The House Elections Committee will hold a hearing on its identical set of legislation Thursday. The legislation is expected to be voted out of the House and Senate committees by next week, after which it would go to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her likely signature.