Ban on use of donated space as Michigan polling places is questioned

David Eggert
Associated Press

Lansing — Clerks and other opponents of a ballot initiative that would toughen Michigan's voting rules raised concerns Wednesday about its proposed ban on using donated spaces as polling places, saying churches and religious organizations account for 20% of them.

Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group that compiled the information, said 664 of 3,355 polling places in the 2020 election were churches, places of worship or similar religious spaces.

"There's a growing panic about the implications," said Mary Clark, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks and the clerk in Delta Township, located near Lansing.

"Whether they're intended or unintended consequences is irrelevant. They're consequences to voters. ... The ban on any in-kind contribution would be devastating."

She said the township of 33,000 residents has 16 precincts. Twelve are located in 10 places of worship.

Paying "going market rate, for me, adds up to a lot of money," Clark said. "It's quite unsettling."

Republicans launched the ballot drive in late August to sidestep Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who vetoed similar legislation two months later. The GOP-controlled Legislature is expected to pass the Secure MI Vote initiative if enough voter signatures are collected.

The proposal would tighten photo ID requirements and ban the secretary of state and clerks from sending absentee ballot applications to people who did not request them. A lesser-known provision would bar the state and municipalities from accepting or using private donations, in-kind contributions or "other consideration" to conduct or administer elections.

The provision is a response to $400 million donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to help fund election offices nationwide as they dealt with the difficulties of adapting to new voting behavior during the coronavirus pandemic. There is anger and suspicion on the right that Zuckerberg's money benefited Democrats in 2020. 

He has denied a partisan agenda and has noted the funds — which paid for protective equipment, drive-thru voting locations, equipment to process mail ballots and more — went to urban, rural and suburban communities. A nonprofit that distributed much of the money, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, has said every election office that applied received funding and its distribution reflects those that chose to apply.

Jamie Roe, spokesman for the Secure MI Vote ballot committee, said the intent is not to do away with polling places that have long been used.

"We do not believe that it is improper for churches to serve as polling places. It's wholly appropriate. The fact of the matter is, though, churches are providing a benefit to the public and they should be compensated for that benefit," he said.

He sought to downplay cost concerns by saying clerks can budget for the additional expense, contending it is unlikely that the change would lead them to seek alternative locations. Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, he said, could send each clerk "the amount of money she wasted" to mail millions of unsolicited absentee ballot applications last year. 

Progress Michigan's report said five counties that are home to more than 1.5 million people — Ottawa, Kent, Kalamazoo, Genesee and Calhoun — used religious spaces as more than 40% of their polling places.

Places of worship comprised a combined 25% of all polling places in the state's two largest counties, Wayne and Oakland.

Sam Inglot, the organization's deputy director, said voters should be aware that the initiated bill is "incredibly broad in its language and all of the areas of election policy and election administration and voter access. It touches on all of those and frankly negatively so."

Roe countered that the administration of elections is an "inherent government function and how that function is carried out should not be dictated in any way, shape or form by outside special interests."