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House bills aim to prune Michigan's voting list, hike penalties for absentee fraud

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A host of election reform bills under consideration by the Republican-run state House would help to prune the state's official voter list and keep tabs on local clerks deficient in training. 

The legislation also would allow smaller precincts to consolidate and clarify rules surrounding joint absentee counting boards. The bills also would make the submission of a fraudulent absentee voter application a five-year felony. 

The bills discussed during the House Elections and Ethics Committee Tuesday come after a December 2019 Office of Auditor General report recommended the state Legislature pass a law that would require the Secretary of State's department to remove individuals from the qualified voter file if an individual does not respond to a mailing notifying them that he or she hasn't voted since the November 2000 general election or that the department has inserted a "placeholder" birthday in their record. 

A precautionary sign on a polling station as Voters casting their ballot at Frederick Douglass Academy In Detroit, Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Those who failed to respond to the mailing would have their record marked as "challenged" and they would be removed from the list if they were inactive for two November general elections after the mailing.

The state House considered similar legislation last session but it failed to advance shortly before the election.

"Part of why they did not get across the finish line last time is the timing but also we can’t make changes to the voting rolls 90 days before a federal election," said state Rep. Ann Bollin, the Brighton Township Republican who chairs the Election and Ethics Committee. 

The auditor general report found about 230 people had been given a placeholder birthday of 1900 because their birthdays were unknown. It's not clear how many voters have failed to participate in an election since 2000.

The report also found 14% of county clerks, 14% of city clerks and 23% of township clerks failed to keep up with accreditation requirements. 

The publication of a list of those clerks, as proposed under one of the bills discussed Tuesday, would allow voters "Access to whether or not their clerk was up-to-date on election law," said Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland.

Other portions of the bill package would increase the maximum number of voters in a precinct from 2,999 to 5,000. The change, Bollin said, would accommodate the increasing number of absentee voters who likely wouldn't show up at a voting precinct as well as account for the decreased number of election workers. The bill also requires local clerks to maintain a permanent absentee voter list. 

Another bill would make it a five-year felony if someone knowingly filled out or submitted an absentee ballot application using someone else's name or identification, using fraudulent information or using a forged signature. Similar bills last year were vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because she argued, so close to the general election, they would create "great voter confusion," Bollin said.

Ann Bollin headshot

"At a time when we are inundated with a lot of noise about our elections, especially absentee or mail-in voting, these bills will serve as a deterrent for potential shenanigans in our election process and enhance voter confidence," Bollin said.

Other portions of the legislation would move back deadlines related to lobbyist and campaign finance reports.