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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Despite dueling plans, Benson, GOP election reforms offer some common ground

Jocelyn Benson

After a tumultuous election and months of unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State and Republican lawmakers are unveiling proposals to improve Michigan’s voting process. 

Speaking to reporters Monday, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called on lawmakers to pass reforms that she’s championed for months — including extra ballot counting time and a ban on firearms at polling places. 

That day, former House Oversight Committee Chair Matt Hall, R-Marshall, offered his own solutions including removing ineligible voters from rolls to improve Michigan elections that he claimed are full of “irregularities.”

The two have dramatically different interpretations of the November election that set a record with 5.6 million ballots, a 71 percent turnout, including 3.2 million absentee ballots.

To Benson, Democrats and most municipal clerks, the election was a rousing success, one of the most secure in the nation’s history and a triumph in easing barriers to vote.

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To Hall and other Republicans, the election was fraught with problems and security lapses that prompted many to wonder about the results. Hall led a committee that held six hearings and heard testimony from 88 people, some of whom made unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud.

But despite the differences between Benson and Hall, both offered some common goals to improving the process and bolstering faith in future elections.

Here’s a look at proposed reforms and possible areas of agreement:

Common ground

  • Both Benson and Hall want to improve training for election workers and challengers, following repeated unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud from GOP poll challengers who some election officials claim were ill-informed. 
  • Benson is advocating a change to law that would allow clerks two weeks to process and count absentee ballots before Election Day. The Republican-led Legislature rejected a plan to do so last year, but some lawmakers have since said they’ve changed their minds.
  • Benson and some Republicans have called for audits of election results before they are certified. Michigan law currently allows such audits only after the votes are made official, prompting questions about their usefulness.

Hall’s proposal

In his plan, Hall proposed several measures to prevent “ballot harvesting” and other “irregularities.” 

He and other Republicans say Benson’s “mass mailings” of absentee ballot applications could lead to fraud. Citing barriers caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Benson used some of Michigan’s $4.4 million in federal relief funds to mail absentee applications to 7.7 million voters. 

Benson said she did so in part to clean the state’s voter rolls. Although there is no evidence any dead voters cast ballots, an expansion of voting rights in Michigan has left the state with more registered voters than actual eligible ones, Bridge Michigan has reported.

Hall wants laws changed so only local clerks can mail absentee ballot application and voter rolls are regularly purged, including a review of voters with an “improbable birthdate.” In July, for instance, Bridge found 16,000 registered voters with birthdates of 1920 or earlier.

Canton Township Clerk Michael Siegrist said that’s a good idea. 

Michigan recently signed an initiative with 29 states to remove voters from the rolls who moved outside of the state, but he said there’s much more room for improvement.

He said Benson should exclude the inactive voter list from her absentee ballot application mailings to improve public perceptions, even if there is no evidence that improperly addressed applications lead to fraud.

“Clerks are in support of a management solution for cleaning up the list in a way that protects voters, but also creates integrity,” Siegrist said. 

Benson’s plan 

Benson focused on measures to “advance democracy” and expand voting access for Michiganders. 

Her plans include: 

  • Making Election Day a state holiday
  • Allowing electronic military ballots 
  • Banning open carry of firearms within 100 feet of polling places
  • Mandating ballots postmarked by Election Day and received shortly after are counted
  • Requiring ballot applications are mailed to registered voters every federal election cycle

Benson said those reforms would improve a process that’s already working well. She said the biggest damage was done by Trump and other Republican leaders who repeated unsubstantiated claims of fraud for months.

She called on Michigan lawmakers to acknowledge the claims were false. 

"If these legislators truly want to support elections, their task is simple: Tell the voters the truth,” she said. 

But in a letter to lawmakers made public Monday, Hall doubled down on claims of “election irregularities,” saying “the trust in our elections process has been shaken and it must be restored.”

Those kinds of claims are dangerous, Siegrist said. While he said he hopes both election officials and the Legislature can come together to make meaningful changes to Michigan’s elections, the reforms can only go so far. 

“The No. 1 barrier to competence in elections is not anything administrative,” Siegrist said. “It's solely a rhetorical issue. We need elected officials to subscribe to the fact that truth matters and that our words have consequences.”

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