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Michigan’s next big election fight: absentee ballot signatures

Absentee ballots
(Bridge file photo)

Oct. 5: As absentee voting surges, Michigan Republicans seek to bar online applications

LANSING — Absentee ballot signatures are emerging as the next flashpoint in a fight over Michigan election security, as a typically benign rule-making process is splitting along partisan lines.

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson wants to formalize prior guidance she gave local clerks on how to validate application and ballot signatures by starting with the presumption that they are valid.

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The Michigan Republican Party contends her proposed rule would make it “nearly impossible for a local election official to strike an obvious forgery,” which Benson’s office calls “patently false.”

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Benson argues the GOP is perpetuating the “Big Lie” that fraud cost President Donald Trump re-election to justify efforts to “restrict the constitutional voting rights of Michigan citizens.”

Inaccurate claims about the signature matching process could further “undermine faith in our elections and restrict the constitutional voting rights of Michigan citizens,” said Benson spokesperson Tracy Wimmer.

The controversy, emerging one year after a record 3.3 million Michigan voters cast absentee ballots in the presidential election, comes amid a dispute over proposed GOP reforms that would tighten state voting laws. 

The signature debate could reach a peak during a public hearing in Detroit on Friday, when GOP activists are asking supporters to show up and oppose the rule.

If the rule is certified by the Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules, Republicans in Lansing would still have 15 session days to stop or delay it through a joint select committee and legislation. 

Benson drafted the policy to clarify existing law, which requires clerks to reject absentee ballot and application signatures that do not "agree sufficiently" with versions on file. The statute does not define those terms, leaving election officials to determine on their own what they mean. 

Pressured by litigation from a liberal group claiming Michigan’s lack of uniform signature review standards disenfranchised voters, Benson last year issued guidance instructing clerks to begin the review process by presuming a signature is valid before scrutinizing it for defects.

Clerks should only invalidate a signature if it “differs in multiple, significant and obvious respects from the signature on file" and "slight dissimilarities should be resolved in favor of the voter," according to a draft rule submitted through the state’s Administrative Rules Division. 

Benson is proposing the rule because the guidance she issued last year was struck down by Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray — after the November election. 

While some Trump supporters claimed Murray’s ruling vindicated the former president’s allegations the election was rigged against him, the judge did not actually weigh in on the merits of Benson’s policy. 

Instead, Murray ruled that because Benson’s guidance applied to all local clerks, it was effectively a rule. Therefore, he said, the Secretary of State should have followed the traditional rule-making process, which involves a public comment period and opportunity for legislative review. 

"Nowhere in this state’s election law has the Legislature indicated that signatures are to be presumed valid, nor did the Legislature require that signatures are to be accepted so long as there are any redeeming qualities in the application or return envelope signature as compared with the signature on file," Murray wrote. 

"Policy determinations like the one at issue — which places a thumb on the scale in favor of a signature’s validity — should be made pursuant to properly promulgated rules under the (Administrative Procedures Act) or by the Legislature."

GOP backlash

As Benson now attempts to codify the rule, Michigan GOP Executive Director Paul Cordes argues the Secretary of State’s proposed policy would set an "irrationally hyper-stringent standard" for rejecting signatures.

The rule would require clerks to validate signatures based on an "array of vague redeeming features,” Cordes wrote in a public comment submitted to the state.

Under the proposal, clerks would be expected to accept a signature if there are "any redeeming qualities" that indicate a match, such as similar “distinctive flourishes" or "more matching features than non matching features."

Additionally, the draft rule would direct clerks to accept signatures that might not match exactly if there is evidence the voter's hand is trembling or shaking, or if part of it is printed out but otherwise matches the cursive signature on file. 

Benson spokesperson Tracy Wimmer defended the proposed rule and accused Republicans of “attempting to make commonsense, long-standing and non-partisan election practices highly charged and political.”

The rule would give discretion to “the hundreds of highly capable and duly elected Republican, Democratic and non-partisan local clerks across the state” who have “rejected many signatures previously, and will continue to do so,” Wimmer wrote in an email to Bridge Michigan.

Canton Township Clerk Michael Siegrist, a Democrat, said he appreciated last year’s guidance and used it to flag hundreds of potentially mismatched signatures for further review. 

Siegrist ended up forwarding two ballots with suspected signature forgeries to Attorney General Dana Nessel, whose office filed charges against a local resident. 

Paul Parana, 47, in January pleaded guilty to violating Michigan election law after filling out his daughter’s absentee ballot and forging her signature “as she instructed,” according to Nessel’s office.

Benson's guidance "didn't do anything to lighten or lessen our scrutiny at all," Siegrist told Bridge Michigan, estimating his office flagged 1 to 2 percent of the 42,000 absentee ballots they received for further signature inspection.  

It makes sense to have clear statewide rules, because "when the decisions of local election officials have the potential to disenfranchise a voter, you want to make sure that you're following a consistent standard," he said. 

Voting rights fight

The fight over the signature matching rule comes as Republicans seek to tighten Michigan voting laws in what they call an attempt to restore confidence in the election system. 

Conservative operatives will soon begin circulating a petition aiming to add a voter ID requirement to absentee ballot applications, eliminate an affidavit option for in-person voters without an ID and prohibit election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications. 

The Michigan Senate, where a GOP panel has debunked false claims Detroit voting machines were connected to the internet, on Thursday approved legislation prohibiting voting machines from being connected to the internet. 

While Benson’s proposed rule would codify last year’s guidance, House Elections Committee Chair Ann Bollin, a Brighton Township Republican and former clerk, has argued it would “weaken” the state’s signature verification process and “make our entire system more vulnerable” to fraud.

In an impact statement filed with the state, Benson's office said the proposed rule is “designed to protect the public interest in secure, responsible, and fair elections while at the same time promoting a regulatory environment that is the least burdensome for those required to comply."

States like Minnesota and Rhode Island also begin the signature review process with a presumption of validity, according to the Michigan Secretary of State. 

Colorado, Hawaii and California have similar provisions to ensure signatures aren't invalidated because of a voter’s advanced age, illness or other factors that could lead to shaky handwriting.

Benson first issued her signature match guidance in February 2020 — prior to the presidential primary and four months after the group Priorities USA had sued her over what it called Michigan’s "arbitrary and standardless" signature matching law.

 memo
A February 2020 guidance memo from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office provided clerks with examples of when they should -- or should not -- invalidate absentee ballot signatures. (Court filing)

In that case, attorneys alleged Michigan had disenfranchised Marissa Accardo, a college student from Canton Township whose 2018 absentee ballot was "discarded" during the signature match review process.

Siegrist, who maintains Accardo’s signature “didn’t even closely resemble” the version in her voter file, said the case has nonetheless “haunted” him because his office had been unable to reach her before the election to give her a chance to resolve the dispute. 

Under the initial guidance and proposed rule, clerks who invalidate a signature would be required to try to inform voters by the end of the next business day — or "immediately" if the election is less than six days away — to give the voter opportunity to "cure" or correct a signature discrepancy before polls close.

That’s standard, Siegrist said. 

And beginning the signature review by presuming it is valid seems to make sense, he added, because “the consequences of disenfranchising a voter are extremely great.”

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