Michigan House panel considers eliminating May elections, requiring poll challenger training

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Michigan House panel is considering making changes to Michigan election laws that would include condensing the May and August elections, requiring election challenger training and allowing county clerks to remove dead people from the state voter file. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office and county clerks largely agreed with some of the changes suggested during the House Elections and Ethics Committee hearing Tuesday, but said some changes to the bills were necessary to earn the department's support. 

"These are very important bills that could have tremendous impact on public perception, especially as it relates to accuracy with our ability to program our elections," said Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican former lawmaker. "Just the additional time that would be afforded to election administrators would be completely invaluable.”

A Michigan House committee is considering election law changes that include condensing the May and August elections and requiring election challenger training.

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The change to the election dates would eliminate low turnout May elections and move up the August primary to a June election date. The earlier primary would give clerks more time to prepare for the November general election. 

The legislation condensing the state's election dates is also expected to save cities and townships the money that would usually be spent on the extra May and August elections. In 2017, the state estimated an average election cost between $2,000 and $2,700 per precinct, saving cities like Detroit about $1 million in a three-election year. 

The legislation was opposed by the Michigan Association of School Boards and other school groups, which worried it would remove options for school districts hoping to schedule a millage election around good debt millage rates. The association also expressed concern that millages would get lost in the mix of larger elections if pushed to June or November.

About 20% of the state's precincts hold three elections in a year and, on average, May elections see a 15% turnout, said Rep. Julie Calley, the Portland Republican who sponsored the legislation. 

"I’m looking at a June date as being ideal but where in June, I would be interested in having that conversation," Calley said. She said she also was open to delaying implementation of the changes to 2023 because of the uncertainty delayed census data and the redistricting process will create in 2022. 

Under a separate bill, county clerks, who are among some of the first to receive notice of a county death, would be tasked with removing those individuals from the voting rolls. Currently, with some exceptions, county clerks transmit the list of deceased individuals to local clerks, who are responsible for removing dead individuals.

"The election season is an extremely busy time for local clerks," said Rep. Andrew Fink, the Hillsdale Republican who sponsored the bill. 

"With the increase in people registering to vote and applying to vote in the last couple election cycles I think we have reason to think that the local clerks would benefit from the county clerks being involved in managing the voter rolls," he said. 

Another bill would require the Secretary of State and county clerks to develop and administer training for election challengers, a suggestion that was made last year after election officials said GOP poll challengers at the TCF Center failed to understand the absentee ballot counting process when they made claims of fraudulent vote counts.

The county clerks would administer the training to party and organization leaders, which would then be required to convey that training to challengers and issue a certificate of completion. The bill also increases training for election inspectors.

Election challengers are sworn in before observing the counting of ballots on Election Day at City Hall in Warren, Mich., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. A Michigan House committee is considering passing a proposal to require training for election challengers.

"One of the fundamental roles of democracy is to have a strong democratic elections process and restoring confidence in that is right at the heart of a lot of the reforms that we’re trying to put in place," said Rep. Bryan Posthumus, the Oakfield Township Republican who introduced the bill. 

"I don’t view this as a partisan issue at all," he said.