Fix will fill empty ballots after election clerk errors
Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a fast-tracked bill to fill empty or partial ballots in at least four Michigan communities where political candidates missed the state filing deadline because of faulty information from local clerks.
State Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, introduced the legislation after 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Clerk Robin Troyer gave candidates a filing deadline spelled out in the city charter rather than a 2012 state law that superseded it.
As a result, several candidates for mayor and city council were left off the November ballot, which currently includes two people who have been appointed to other positions and no longer want the elected jobs.
Clerks in Tecumseh, Bessmer and Lake Angelus also gave candidates the wrong filing deadlines, disqualifying otherwise qualified candidates from the ballot.
With ballot printing looming, the state Senate approved the bill in a 37-0 vote, sending it to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for an expected signature following passage last week in the Michigan House.
The measure would allow cities to extend the deadline for nominating petitions if a local clerk publishes faulty information. Clerks who give out erroneous dates would be required to undergo training, and their municipalities would be subject to fines.
“One of our duties here in state government is to ensure the integrity and the efficiency of our local elections,” Chatfield told senators in committee on Wednesday, “and we believe the bill that is before you is the best solution to an unfortunate situation.”
In at least two of the four affected cities, clerks relied on dates outlined in local charters that have not been updated to reflect a 2012 law that changed the state deadline.
In Lake Angelus, a small municipality in northern Oakland County, City Clerk Lee McNew erroneously gave candidates the deadline to withdraw rather than file, said Oakland County Elections Clerk Joe Rozell. Her husband, Mayor Patrick McNew, was kept off the ballot but is running a write-in campaign as he seeks election to the city council.
Rozell blasted the legislation last week, arguing candidates 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 Lake Angelus council seats.
The Michigan 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.”
The new proposal includes a deterrent, requiring cities that pursue an extended filing deadline for the November election to pay fines of $2,500. The proposal would fine municipalities $5,000 for future errors.
“It’s a pretty good check to write if you miss a deadline,” said Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.
Sen. Dave Robertson, a Grand Blanc Republican who chairs the election committee and pushed to change the statewide candidate filing deadline in 2012, said he hoped clerks would have learned about the change by now through “normal communication channels.”
The Michigan Municipal League is expected to work with Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office to better educate clerks around the state, many of whom are appointed to their positions.
“For the short term, the immediate term, my objective is to remedy the situation for those effected so we have no interruption or no difficulty pursuing the elections they would like to have,” Robertson said.
Johnson’s office is not taking a position on the bill, but director of government affairs Mike Batterbee recently told legislators he believes communities could meet a deadline to send out military absentee ballots if the bill made it this week to the governor’s desk.