Secretary of State Benson: Michigan Senate GOP election plan is 'poisonous'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson described a 39-bill package of election law changes introduced by Senate Republicans as "poisonous," "un-American" and "an affront" to voters on Thursday.

Benson, a Democrat and the state's top election official, verbally pummeled the proposals from GOP lawmakers during a press conference, opening what could be a months-long fight with national repercussions over how voters in the battleground state cast their ballots.

"This is an attack on our democracy and the American values that make our country strong," Benson said. "They are deceiving the public by claiming their bills improve election integrity when they simply make it harder for all citizens to vote. So don't believe them.

"These proposals are based on the lies that sought to undermine the will of the voters in our democracy last year. And they should be seen for what they are: an extension of those same lies, seeking to continue to undermine the will of Michigan citizens."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at a press conference on Thursday, April 15, 2021. She slammed a 39-bill election package introduced by Michigan Senate Republicans.

After Republican Donald Trump's loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential race in November and Trump's effort to discredit the results by criticizing the election process, GOP lawmakers in states across the country have introduced bills to alter voting laws.

Michigan Senate Republicans unveiled their proposals on March 24. They contended their bills would ensure integrity and "restore trust" in the voting process.

Among the many proposed changes, the bills would bar Benson from sending out absentee ballot applications unless they are specifically requested by voters. Benson sent out applications to all registered voters in 2020 amid the pandemic, drawing criticism from Trump. The then-president said Michigan was going down a "voter fraud path."

The bills would also overhaul large counties' canvassing boards and mandate that absentee ballot drop boxes be monitored by video recordings. Benson focused her criticisms Thursday on four other elements of the package, including a bill that would require applicants for absentee ballots to attach a copy of identification.

The proposal would limit "the right to vote by mail to only those who can pay to access a copy machine" and would force voters to risk identity theft, Benson said.

Another bill would give county boards of canvassers, which include equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, the power to approve absentee voter drop boxes, which have become the focus of GOP questions about the election. That could lead to partisan officials banning drop boxes, Benson said.

Senate Oversight Chairman Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, has disagreed with that argument. McBroom has said the canvassing boards already approve containers used to transport ballots.

"It’s not a significant change," the GOP Senate committee chairman said previously.

Benson noted that the Senate bills would prevent local clerks from pre-paying postage on the return envelopes for absentee ballots and would bar voters from using absentee ballot drop boxes after 5 p.m. on the day before Election Day.

The majority of drop box ballots were brought in on Election Day, Benson said.

"That’s a very clear example of not following the data," the secretary of state said.

The Senate Republicans' Twitter account fired back, saying the package allows for the pre-registration of 16-year-olds when they get their driver's licenses and creates another day of voting on a Saturday 10 days before Election Day.

"We wonder which of these things Secretary of State @JocelynBenson considers 'un-American' in our elections reforms plan?" the Senate Republicans questioned.

The exchange is an example of what could be ahead in the coming months as the Michigan Republican Party plans to launch a legislative initiative to put the proposals into law if Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opposes them, as she has indicated she will.

If Republicans gathered enough signatures — more than 340,000 would be needed — the GOP-controlled Legislature could approve the proposal into law without Whitmer being able to veto it.

"If that legislation is not passed by our Legislature, which I am sure it will be, but if it's not signed by the governor, then we have other plans to make sure that it becomes law before 2022," Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser told a gathering of Oakland County Republicans in March.

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey updates the media during a news conference at TCF Center in Detroit on the progress of ballot counting in Wayne County shortly after the polls closed on election day, Nov. 3, 2020.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey appeared with Benson at Thursday morning's press conference. Detroit, Michigan's largest city and a Democratic stronghold, was a focal point of Republican attempts to undermine the 2020 election in Michigan.

Senate Republicans want to restrict the voting rights of people in Detroit, Winfrey said. By banning pre-paid postage on absentee ballots, the legislation discriminates against low-income citizens, she added.

"We’re not going to stand for it," Winfrey said. "We fought too hard. We worked too hard to ensure access to the ballot. And we’ll continue that work."

Trump lost Michigan by 3 percentage points or 154,000 votes in November.