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Benson touts Michigan reforms in lobbying for federal election law changes

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson urged a congressional panel Wednesday to support one of the largest overhauls of U.S. election law in decades. 

The "For the People" bill, passed by the U.S. House 220-210 earlier this month, would make sweeping changes to federal election law, including instilling restrictions on gerrymandering; lifting photo identification rules; allowing same day registration, early voting and no-reason absentee voting; restricting purges of state voter rolls; and tightening restrictions on campaign financing. 

Benson touted Michigan's 2020 implementation of no-reason absentee voting, same day registration and the new independent citizens redistricting commission. 

"If Michigan can do all of this in one election cycle in the midst of a global pandemic and during one of the most significant and highly scrutinized election cycles in our lifetime, every state in the country with proper funding and leadership can do the same," the Detroit Democrat told the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testifies remotely during a U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration hearing on a bill that would make sweeping changes to federal election law.

The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund on Wednesday attacked Benson's support for the federal legislation, calling it a "brazen partisan power grab" that would "enable ballot harvesting, compel states to allow felons to vote, and undermine freedom of speech."

"One would think the Secretary of State would jealously guard the important role that our states have in administering our elections but apparently for Jocelyn Benson, virtue signaling to the radical left is more important than standing up for Michigan," said Tony Daunt, executive director for the Michigan Freedom Fund and a member of the Board of State Canvassers. 

Republican senators at Wednesday's hearing denounced the legislation as an overreach of federal authority and a costly undertaking that would prompt "chaos" as states struggled to comply with the federal edicts. 

Democratic lawmakers said the federal rules will act as a safeguard against dozens of election reforms proposed by Republican legislatures after the 2020 elections that could work to suppress the vote. The GOP-led Michigan Senate introduced 39 bills Wednesday to make changes to the state's election process.

Benson, whose mailing of unsolicited absentee ballot applications to Michigan voters prompted Republican outcry, noted absentee voters increased from 1.1 million in November 2016 to 3.3 million in 2020. She said the state's use of paper ballots ensures against hacking and allows for post-election audits to confirm results. 

Benson's directive over the past year have largely been upheld by state courts. But earlier this month, state Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray ruled invalid Benson's October guidance that instructed clerks to presume the accuracy of absentee ballot signatures. 

State courts also halted Benson's directive that sought to ban the open carry of firearms near polling locations on Election Day. 

About two weeks before Election Day, the state Court of Appeals overruled a lower court decision that would have required clerks to count absentee ballots received after Election Day. 

Michigan's experience over the past year should be the "blueprint" for how states implement the federal legislation if passes, Benson said. "Only politics and political will" stand in the way of real change at the federal level, she said. 

"At this moment you are our greatest hope and this legislation is our best chance to stop this rollback on voting rights that is sweeping state legislatures throughout the country," Benson said. 

Others testifying Wednesday were less optimistic about the effect the federal legislation would have on states, voicing concerns about cost, implementation, voter fraud and violations of states' rights. 

If the legislation should pass, Republican Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita said, "the sun won’t set in Indiana before we sue the federal government.”