Benson pushes for early counting of absentee ballots, among other changes

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson pushed for a bevy of new legislative priorities Wednesday to increase government transparency and improve elections.

Lansing — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson pushed for new legislative priorities Wednesday to increase government transparency, secure elections and implement voter-approved changes to the state’s voting laws.

Testifying before the House Elections and Ethics Committee, Benson said she hopes the Legislature will take up bills that help to implement the Promote the Vote ballot initiative, which allows for no reason absentee voting, same-day voter registration, automatic registration and election audits.

Benson has created a task force to focus on implementing the ballot initiative but said the Legislature’s collaboration and voter education will be crucial.

“I’m optimistic that we can find partnerships and work with legislators to propose this legislation,” Benson told reporters after the hearing.

Benson proposed laws that would allow clerks to begin counting absentee ballots the Friday before an election to meet the expected increase in future elections. Increased training on signature verification and allowances for absentee ballots postmarked on or before the day of the election also will be important, Benson said.  

After meeting with clerks throughout the state, Benson said “there was a clear concern of, ‘How are we going to count all of these new absentee ballots that come in if we can’t start until election day?’”

Republican Rep. Julie Calley, chairwoman for the House Elections and Ethics Committee, said Benson's desire for more transparency and her recognition of the need to better equip local clerks for elections are ideas on which both Republicans and Democrats can agree. The meeting helped to set a "tone of cooperation" among legislators and Benson, Calley said.

"No formal legislation has been introduced on any of the topics she talked about but I expect that will be forthcoming,” the Portland Republican said. 

While the expected increase in absentee ballots could slow election returns, early tallies of absentee ballots carry challenges. For example, Calley said, Michigan voters are allowed to change their ballots up to the day before the election, potentially snarling efforts at early vote tallies. 

Other efforts proposed by Benson to modernize Michigan’s elections would eliminate obsolete laws governing clerk’s offices, require the offices to remain open longer the Saturday and Sunday before an election, make it illegal to knowingly deceive voters about election information, and allow 16 and 17-year-olds to begin the paperwork early for voter registration.

The Detroit Democrat proposed legislation that would ensure nonprofit political groups organized under Section 527 of the IRS code make more robust reports to the Secretary of State, require administrative accounts to report all receipts and disbursements, require LLCs donating to campaigns to disclose full names, and end “express advocacy” by making paid communication referring to a candidate by name close to an election subject to disclosure.

Benson said cases like the recent one against Build a Better Michigan exhibit the need to clarify the laws governing political spending.

Benson reached a $37,500 settlement in February with Build a Better Michigan, a 527 nonprofit that ran election-season ads featuring Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The group claimed the ads were “issue advocacy” exempt from the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, but Benson said the ads violated the law by mentioning Whitmer as a “candidate for governor.”

Benson said she was forced to settle the case rather than dismissing it or issuing a clear judgment so as not to set a precedent that limited or expanded the scope of the law.  

“With an appeal to the courts, there was a risk that the law would be narrowly interpreted to reduce transparency or that there would be no penalty or fine assessed at all,” Benson told lawmakers.  

The Michigan Republican Party has slammed Benson's action as inadequate. Its legal counsel has argued that precedent showed Benson could have fined Build a Better Michigan millions of dollars and could have pursued criminal charges against Whitmer's allies but instead received legal immunity.

“That prior precedent should have resulted in a fine equal to the amount of money that was illegally spent," said GOP spokesman Tony Zammit. "This was a very small slap on the wrist."

Benson noted that her office has determined there are about $1.5 million in unpaid campaign finance fees in Michigan, roughly $1 million of which has accumulated in the past five or six years. The fines largely involve political action committees and candidate committees, especially those involving losing candidates.

“Clearly, something’s broken,” Benson said about the enforcement of campaign finance fees. “A lot of it gets referred to the Treasury so we’re trying to see what happens then.”

Benson said she supports legislation applying public records laws to the governor and Legislature and asked lawmakers to stop “pay to play” schemes by banning entities that receive state grants or contracts from making political contributions.

She also asked lawmakers to require personal financial disclosures from elected politicians, institute a cooling off period to delay lawmakers’ entry into lobbying firms, better enforce the Conflict of Interest Act as it applies to legislators and require legislative consultants to register as lobbyists.

Next week, Benson said she plans to announce initiatives that would improve the state’s transparency and ethics, including incentives for voluntary personal finance disclosure.

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