Michigan GOP panel votes to strip power from Democratic secretary of state

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
A Senate Republican power play proposal to shift campaign oversight from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson to a new political commission is poised to die in the Michigan House.

Lansing — Senate Republicans are advancing a controversial plan that would strip incoming Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson of the power to enforce the state’s campaign finance laws.

The Senate Elections Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would instead shift campaign finance oversight to a bipartisan committee. The six members would be picked from a list submitted by each of the two major political parties.

The legislation is among a slew of lame-duck power play proposals by legislative Republicans, who will retain their majorities next year in the House and Senate as Democrats take over top statewide offices, including the secretary of state post that has been occupied by a Republican the past 24 years.

Supporters say the proposed “fair political practices commission” is modeled on the Federal Election Commission, but critics say that bipartisan panel has proven ineffective because of routine deadlocks.

“The fear I have is that this commission will not be able to accomplish anything because of the 3-3 divide and because these commission members will be accountable to the political parties and not the voters like the secretary of state,” said Craig Mauger, a watchdog with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Under the legislation, which could see a vote in the full Senate as soon as Thursday, the Michigan Republican Party and the Michigan Democratic Party would each recommend three potential members for three separate commission posts. The governor would then appoint all six members, three from each party.

Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer "would select the six members,” said Eric Doster, a Republican attorney and campaign finance expert who voiced support for the commission plan.

The proposal "advances the Legislature’s responsibility to promote the purity of elections,” Doster said, noting the Michigan Constitution does not give the secretary of state authority over campaign finance issues.

Benson has blasted the proposed legislation, which a spokesperson said would “make Michigan a national punch line by effectively ending enforcement of the campaign finance laws they are required to abide by.”

The FEC deadlocks between nine and 37 percent of the time, said Mauger, who added the state commission would “probably operate in an even more divisive fashion” because of the role the political parties would play in member selection.

Sponsoring Sen. Dave Robertson, a term-limited Grand Blanc Republican who chairs the elections committee and has personally racked up campaign finance late fees, defended the legislation in a fiery interaction with reporters.

Asked if he was attempting to strip power from an incoming Democratic secretary of state, Robertson laughed and said he said he is “perfectly comfortable” with advancing the bill for further discussion.

"We are attempting to put together a board here that would have to act in a bipartisan fashion,” Robertson said. “We have heard a lot from the other side of the aisle over the last eight years over the need for bipartisanship — in all things. Here is a chance for them to embrace it.”

The committee advanced the bill in a 4-1 party-line vote. With less than three weeks left in the lame-duck session, the legislation now awaits action in the full Senate.

Calling the bill a reform is an attempt to “mislead the public,” said Chris Thomas, a former Michigan elections director who served under Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.

Robertson “knows his bill hands campaign finance to politicians,” Thomas wrote on Twitter.

Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, a Democrat and former state lawmakers, accused Robertson of trying to “bury” his own campaign finance fines by proposing the new commission.

“That’s about the most perfect example of the fox guarding the hen house that I’ve ever seen,” Gleason said in a statement. “Dave Robertson is part of the swamp that reformers like Jocelyn Benson are trying to drain.”

Robertson denied the legislation has anything to do with his own campaign issues.

“I’ve complied with the state law with regard to my own situation in every respect and continue to,” Robertson told reporters. “I’m the chairman of this committee. I have the power to do this until Dec. 31, actually Jan. 1 at noon.”

State records show Robertson paid off $92 of late fees in June and $226.67 in July. Unless he made another payment that has not yet been recorded, Robertson currently owes $1,681 in campaign finance fees, according to current Secretary of State Ruth Johnson's office.

Ballot proposal rules

The full Republican-led Senate on Wednesday approved separate legislation that would create rules to govern how Benson will select members to a new independent redistricting commission that voters approved last month as Proposal 2.

Specifically, the bill defines how the secretary of state should determine affiliation of applicants to the bipartisan commission, which must include four Democrats, four Republicans and five independent members. The panel will draw new political boundaries after the 2020 Census instead of majority lawmakers.

The Voters Not Politicians committee has argued the Legislature does not have the authority to do so because the constitutional amendment includes “self-executing” language that prohibits the Legislature from defining parameters.

But sponsoring Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Shores, said his legislation “does not in any way impact” the ballot proposal itself. “This simply weighs out some partisan precautions,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, called the bill “unnecessary” and warned Republicans they may be setting themselves up for a lawsuit.

“The incoming secretary of state was elected to preside over election matters,” Ananich said. “She’s capable of figuring out who is a Republican and who is a Democrat without this lame-duck Legislature.”

The legislation would also prohibit anyone affiliated with a political party from providing services, including legal counsel or accounting, to the commission. An amendment adopted Wednesday clarified that prohibition does not apply to commissioners themselves. 

Another bill awaiting action in the Senate would affect — but not directly amend — ballot Proposal 3 approved by voters last month.

The constitutional amendment guarantees various voting and registration rights in Michigan, including same-day voter registration, no-reason absentee voting and post-election audits.

Republicans on the Senate Elections Committee advanced the measure Wednesday in a 4-1 vote after more than a dozen citizens spoke out against the legislation, several telling lawmakers they had never testified in a legislative hearing before.

Critics raised a handful of concerns about the legislation itself, but they mostly criticized the process, accusing lawmakers of rushing to undermine a voter-approved ballot measure during the so-called lame-duck session.

“Trying to change the rules on your way out the door is disgraceful,” Glenna DeJong, who told lawmakers she traveled the hearing from West Michigan, said.

Sponsoring Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, told colleagues that nothing in his legislation “conflicts with any right guaranteed in Proposal 3.” Instead, the bills “ensure Proposal 3 is carried out as intended by the voters while clarifying certain areas that were left open to interpretation," he said.

Under the voter-approved constitutional amendment, a resident can register to vote by mail until 15 days before an election. After that, and up through Election Day, voters can register in person by filling out an application and showing “proof of residency” to an election official.

The legislation would further clarify the process by requiring in-person registration take place at a local city clerk’s office or a satellite location, a provision critics say would prohibit more convenient registration at a polling place.

The bill also defines “proof of residency” as a driver’s license, state identification card or a current utility bill, bank statement or paycheck with a current name and address.

Those rules could depress registration in college towns, said Aaron Stephens, an East Lansing City Council member who won the post last year while attending Michigan State University.

“What college kid is going to have the opportunity to go to the City Clerk’s office, find their location, and then walk over or bike over, because most of them don’t have cars if it’s their first year or their second year.”

While the legislation would allow clerks to set up satellite offices to register voters, many local governments will not have the resources to do so, Stephens argued.

“It would be much easier if you could just register when you go to the poll,” he said. “You go there, somebody asks you have you registered to vote, and if you haven’t you enter a different line.”