Secretary of State Benson: GOP bill would criminalize officials' election Twitter posts

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — One of the 39 bills Michigan Senate Republicans proposed to overhaul the state's voting laws would make it a crime for certain officials to share information about an upcoming election on Twitter or other social media platforms.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, raised the criticism Wednesday as the Senate Elections Committee began debating the proposal that seeks to bar the "name or likeness" of an official from appearing in any "communication" funded with public money that involves an election-related activity.

The bill specifically defines communications as advertisements, billboards, mail or "social media posts." Under the bill, a violation would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $100.

Jocelyn Benson, Secretary of State, holds a press conference at Pasteur Elementary School in Detroit to give an update on today's election, Tuesday,  August 4, 2020.

"Senate Bill 305 would inexplicably bar the most trusted sources of voter education and election information in our state — the secretary of state and election clerks — from educating citizens about the mechanics of voting," Benson said in a statement.

"At a time when misinformation is escalating and election administrators are the most reliable and informed voices available to counter it, this bill would ban them from doing so." 

During a committee hearing Wednesday afternoon, Republican lawmakers countered that the bill was meant to prevent clerks from using taxpayer money to buy billboards or other advertisements that help promote themselves ahead of an election.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said it can be confusing whether some of the communications from clerks' offices are campaign literature or taxpayer-funded neutral information.

"We saw this last election, giant billboards out on the highway," McBroom said of a billboard featuring an elected clerk's photo and text about the upcoming election.

After the meeting, McBroom said the question is what should be a campaign communication funded with campaign money and what should be an officeholder communication funded by taxpayers.

"This is a complex question," McBroom said. "Is this particular communication electioneering, or is it simply my obligation as an elected official?"

Many lawmakers have both campaign social media accounts, which they use for campaign matters, and officeholder accounts, which they use for legislative duties.

"We need to tweak this to make sure it works but also protects taxpayer dollars," McBroom said of the measure.

The Senate GOP bill's restrictions would apply to only the secretary of state, a county clerk, and a city, village or township clerk.

As it stands, Adam Reames, the Michigan Department of State’s legislative policy director, described the bill's language as "dangerously" broad.

And Midland County Clerk Ann Manary testified in opposition to the proposal, saying voters wouldn't know whether provided information about an upcoming election was true if it didn't feature information about the local clerk.

"No offense, senators. We are the individuals who know the most about elections," Manary said.

The Senate Elections Committee didn't vote on any of the seven bills it considered Wednesday. The seven proposals are part of a 39-bill package Republicans unveiled in March.

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.

Wednesday's hearing was the second on bills in the Michigan Senate GOP package.

Lawmakers also debated legislation to allow 16-year-olds to preregister to vote at a secretary of state office and to ban local clerks from providing prepaid postage on absentee ballot return envelopes. Cities like Detroit and Sterling Heights have previously funded prepaid postage to make the voting process easier for residents.

But Republicans argued that it's unfair that some municipalities prepay postage while others don't.

Michigan Senate Republicans unveiled their election package on March 24. They said the bills would ensure integrity and "restore trust" in the voting process. But Benson has called the bills "poisonous" and an attack on democracy.

The most controversial bills in the package would bar the secretary of state from sending out absentee ballot applications unless voters request them, would change how canvassing boards operate in large counties, would prohibit ballot drop boxes from being used on Election Day, and would require applicants for absentee ballots to attach a copy of identification.