Michigan House approves bills to prune voter rolls over Benson's objection

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan House has passed several election-related bills, including two opposed by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson that would prune the state's voter rolls of individuals who failed to respond to questions about their eligibility. 

The legislation would require Benson's office to remove individuals from the qualified voter file if the voters failed to respond to a mailing notifying them they hadn't voted since the November 2000 general election or that the department had inserted a "placeholder" birthday in their record.

The legislation, approved Tuesday, will move to the Senate next for consideration, after several Democrats voiced concern on the House floor over the burden the bills placed on voters.

People stand in line at Warren's Precinct 4 as they wait to receive and cast their ballots inside the Fitzgerald Recreation Center in Warren, Tuesday afternoon, November 3, 2020.

The bills were proposed well before the contentious November election based on a 2019 auditor general report showing concerns with the qualified voter file related to placeholder birthdays and inactive voters, said Rep. Matt Hall, the Marshall Republican who sponsored one of the bills.

"All of these bills today are about this audit," Hall said. "They're not about the November election. ... This problem was identified in December 2019."

Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt, said the bill would create unnecessary hurdles to voting and stoke unfounded claims of election fraud.

"This bill would do nothing to restore faith in our elections," Hope said. "Instead, it would deter registered voters from exercising their right, it would create needless delays at polling places. In short, it would disenfranchise voters."

Benson's office said it is committed to making sure the state's qualified voter file is accurate, but said the House's measures, drafted without the department's input, would remove eligible voters and make it "unnecessarily onerous" for eligible voters to stop their removal. 

“We are committed to ensuring the accuracy of the voter file in a responsible, data driven and transparent way," Benson spokesman Jake Rollow said. "That’s why we canceled 177,000 registrations and have partnered with ERIC (Electronic Registration Information Center) and local clerks to send notification of possible future cancellation to hundreds of thousands of additional registrations."

The approved bills, Rollow said, "do not follow data or best practices or take into consideration the views of experts."

Placeholder birthdays indicating a date in 1900 have been used in the past in the qualified voter file when an individual's birthday was unclear, making it appear that some registered voters in state rolls were more than 120 years old. 

The state auditor general in 2019 reported about 230 people had been given a 1900 birthday in voter rolls because of confusion over their birth date. 

The bills specifically would require Benson's office to send communication to people identified as potentially having a placeholder birthday or who hadn't voted since November 2000. 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 two November general elections after the mailing. 

The state House considered similar legislation prior to the election but it failed to advance. The bills approved Tuesday passed the House 61-48 on the placeholder birthdays proposal and 66-43 on the inactive voters plan. 

Other bills approved Tuesday and inspired by the 2019 audit would require the secretary of state to post a list of local clerks who had not kept up with continuing education training, change deadlines for lobbying and campaign finance reports, allow for the consolidation of some precincts, and change requirements for the creation of an absentee voter counting board.