Michigan House Dems OK election access measures: What the bills would do
- The Michigan House voted to move through several election bills aimed at expanding ballot access
- Online absentee ballot applications, allowing paid rides to polls, voting for military spouses are among them
- Republicans argue the efforts would chip away at election security
Paid rides to polls, online absentee ballot applications and electronic voting for military spouses could be in Michigan’s future.
Earlier this year, the Democratic-majority legislature codified voter-approved changes outlined in 2022’s Proposal 2, a statewide ballot initiative that mandated at least nine days of in-person early voting, among other changes.
On Wednesday, House Democrats pushed through a series of bills in 56-54 party-line votes aimed at expanding voting access even further, targeting existing election policies and embracing technology to ease access to absentee ballots.
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To become law, the legislation needs to pass the Senate and get signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The bills were supported by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, who said in a Wednesday evening statement that the bills would make Michigan “a leader in protecting and strengthening our fundamental right to participate in elections.”
House Republicans were decidedly less enthused, voting against the package en masse. They argued the legislation changes the election process well beyond what voters agreed to in recent elections and could compromise election security.
“Every single member of this House should be concerned about the outcome of their next election” based on provisions included in the bills, Rep. Jay DeBoyer, R-Clay Township, said on the House floor.
Here’s how the latest bills pending in the Legislature would change Michigan election laws:
Change rules for ballot challenges
Previous voter-initiated reforms allowed voters to register to vote in person through Election Day with proof of residency, but those ballots are automatically processed as challenged ballots if they register 14 days or less before the election begins.
House Bill 4567 would no longer require these ballots to be automatically processed as challenged, a move Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou, an East Lansing Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said would reduce ballot processing times in college towns, where many young voters take advantage of the same-day voting option.
“Enforcing this requirement adds another 10 to 15 minutes of processing time per vote, which is why, for example, Ann Arbor returns were so slow to come in the 2022 election,” she said (Ann Arbor includes the University of Michigan campus). Tsernoglou added that no same-day registration challenges have resulted in a case of voter fraud.
The current ballot challenging process “doesn't make our election safer or more secure and it is especially discouraging for young people voting for the first time,” Tsernoglou said.
But DeBoyer, a former local clerk, said he is concerned about what the change in process might mean in close local elections where a single vote could make a big difference. Sometimes, he said, taking an extra step is necessary.
“The job of a clerk on Election Day is to do the cumbersome tasks to ensure the integrity of the election,” he said.
Electronic voting for military spouses
Lawmakers last year approved legislation allowing members of the U.S. military living overseas to vote using a Department of Defense verified signature.
House Bill 4210, sponsored by Rep. Carol Glanville, D-Wyoming, would allow their spouses to vote electronically as well, so long as their signature on the electronic ballot matched the signature in Secretary of State records.
Rep. Christine Morse, D-Texas Township — who lived with her husband overseas while he served in the U.S. Navy — said in a floor speech that her voting record showed her absentee ballot in the 2008 general election was not counted.
She said military spouses living overseas “should not be sacrificing their sacred constitutional right to vote” when they move to keep their family together.
But House Republicans said they are concerned about the security risks of allowing non-military members to vote electronically, citing a lack of safeguards in place to reduce risks of unauthorized access.
“There are no methods to reliably secure the data all the way to the local jurisdiction,” Rep. Rachelle Smit, R-Martin, said in a floor speech.
Glanville countered that the system proposed would create a paper trail that is more reliable than reliance on the global postal system and addresses the “unique stressors” on military families living overseas.
Earlier Wednesday, the Democratic-majority state Senate approved a separate measure to shift the start date for electronic return of military ballots, delaying it from Jan. 1, 2024 to Sept. 1, 2025. The bill now heads to the House for further consideration.
Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican and former Secretary of State, criticized the proposed change on the Senate floor, arguing members of the military should be able to use electronic voting returns in the 2024 general election.
Online absent voter applications
House Bill 4570, sponsored by Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, would codify current Secretary of State policy allowing voters to apply for an absentee ballot online.
The bill would not allow online voting or otherwise alter the absentee voting process.
“It ensures that a secure and convenient method to apply for an absentee ballot online will remain available for voters in the future,” Rogers said.
Allow rides to ballots
Michigan election laws currently ban the practice of hiring transportation to escort voters to polling places unless voters are physically unable to walk. House Bill 4568, sponsored by Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit, would repeal the law.
Voting rights activists have long argued the decades-old law is a barrier to voting access and is unique to Michigan. The law was unsuccessfully challenged in federal court, and a state lawsuit was filed this summer.
Whitsett said repealing the law would allow churches and other community groups to arrange voting transportation for those in need, including senior voters or people with disabilities.
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