House votes to fix empty ballots after clerk errors

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Michigan Legislature is acting fast on a plan that would allow political candidates in at least four Michigan cities to qualify for the November ballot even though they missed the filing deadline because of faulty information from local clerks.

The state House approved the proposal Wednesday in a 92-13 vote, sending it to the Senate for consideration next week in an attempt to beat ballot printing deadlines.

In Lake Angelus, a small city in northern Oakland County, Mayor Patrick McNew is running for re-election to the City Council but is not currently qualified for the ballot because his wife, City Clerk Lee McNew, gave candidates the deadline to withdraw rather than file.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Clerk Robin Troyer gave candidates a filing deadline spelled out in the city charter rather than a 2012 state law that superseded it. The only people who qualified for the ballot for mayor and city council were appointed to other positions and no longer want the jobs.

Similar situations are unfolding in Tecumseh and Bessemer.

The fix proposed by Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, would allow communities to extend the deadline for nominating petitions if a local clerk publishes faulty information. Clerks would be required to undergo additional training and, under a committee amendment, municipalities who give out erroneous deadlines would face fines.

Chatfield, who represents Sault Ste. Marie, called the measure a “temporary solution” to a unfortunate problem.

“I am here to fight for the people of my district and ensure they have a smooth election process,” he said in testimony before the House Elections Committee. “This isn’t something we all chose, but it is unfortunately a situation that occurred.”

Oakland County Elections Director Joe Rozell blasted the legislation even though it could help Lake Angelus, arguing candidates there had a personal responsibility to check the filing deadlines themselves. McNew, Mayor Pro Tem Dennis Mitchell and challenger Jerry Hemphill are competing as write-in candidates for two council seats.

“This is bad public policy,” Rozell told legislators. “This sends a message that election officials, whose job is clearly important, don’t need to get it right.”

Rozell also argued the legislation will make it difficult for Oakland County to send out absentee ballots to military veterans and overseas voters by Sept. 23, as required by state law. The county plans to send ballots to the printer by Friday and has a contractual obligation to give the printer two weeks to complete the job, he said.

“We’re going to do everything we can, but it’s a situation we’d prefer not to be in,” Rozell told reporters after the hearing.

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office is not taking a position on the bill, but director of government affairs Mike Batterbee told legislators he believes communities could meet the military absentee ballot deadline if the House and Senate send the measure to the governor’s desk by next week.

The Legislature made a similar fix in 2015 when an employee in the Flint City Clerks’ office gave mayoral candidates the wrong filing deadline, keeping office seekers off the ballot and prompting an embarrassing write-in contest that had featured “Giggles the pig.”

Under an amendment proposed by Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, cities that pursue and extended the filing deadline for the November election would face fines of $2,500. The proposal would fine municipalities $5,000 for future errors.

“I don’t think anybody on this committee wants to punish the individuals in these communities or the individuals impacted at all,” Garcia said in the House Election panel meeting. “I think there’s more concern about the process and why we’re having another conversation just two short years later after we had it about Flint.”

Chris Hackbarth of the Michigan Municipal League said the state has changed filing deadline rules twice in the last seven years, creating confusion in some local communities who had updated their city charters to reflect the first change but not the 2012 law.

The state deadlines this year were April 25 for the primary and July 25 for the general election.

In Tecumseh, City Manager Dan Swallow said current charter language would have given candidates until August 21 to file. Because Clerk Jessica Emrick told candidates they could file until that date, only two of the four candidates competing for three City Council seats now qualify for the ballot.

“Two of the four will now have to be a write-in candidate, and that does not allow the people of Tecumseh to have a full slate before them,” Swallow said. “We’re all elected officials and I think we all understand the importance of making the process fair and equal to all.”

Fine revenue from the proposed law would go to Secretary of State’s office, which would be required to impose new “accountability” requirements on clerks who gave out erroneous filing deadline information, including training and oversight of nominating petition.