Michigan election officials see 'mischief' in new signature check proposal

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan voters who cast their ballots in person on Election Day would be subject to signature checks, in addition to photo identification requirements, under a bill the state House quickly amended and passed last week.

Many election officials oppose the bill, which they say could lead to fights over the authenticity of voters' signatures at polling places even if the voters have photo ID with them. On top of that fear, the officials say the language would lead to longer lines at precincts as the checks take place and voters whose signatures are deemed insufficient cast provisional ballots.

On Wednesday, Michigan House Republicans inserted the new signature check language into a Senate-passed bill that would require voters without photo ID with them to cast provisional ballots. For the ballots to count, they would have to return to verify their identity within six days. The bill now also requires people whose signature on their application to vote doesn't match their signature on file with the state — often the one on their driver's license — cast a provisional ballot.

Voters casting their ballot at Frederick Douglass Academy In Detroit, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

"It made it worse than what the Senate passed,” said Chris Thomas, Michigan's longtime former elections director. "And it really creates a lot of potential for mischief with challengers now flyspecking signature checking.”

Currently, local clerk's offices use signature checks to help verify the identity of voters casting absentee ballots. However, the verification process for in-person voting at the polls has usually relied on photo identification. People can only vote without a photo ID at the polls if they sign an affidavit saying they are not in possession of ID.

Under the new proposal, signatures would have to be included in electronic poll books at polling places. And signature checks would take place with local election inspectors, often individuals who work elections only a few days a year, comparing signatures with poll challengers potentially weighing in and raising red flag about potential mismatches.

The House Elections Committee amended the Senate-approved bill to include the new signature policy last week. During the committee's Wednesday meeting, individuals testifying before the panel indicated the signature check would only come into play for voters without photo ID — meaning those without an ID could still vote normally if their  signature matched.

Michigan State Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, oversaw the change of an election bill involving signature verification that has come under fire.

"In the future, I’d really like to entertain that, one, if you don’t have your photo ID, then we check your signature. If we have your signature, then you move along and thus eliminating the need for the provisional ballot," House Elections Chairwoman Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, told reporters after the meeting.

But the proposal says that if voters don't have ID or their "signature on the application does not match the elector's digitized signature contained in the electronic poll book," they have to cast a provisional ballot.

The bill passed the House in a 58-52 vote Wednesday after the committee hearing. Usually, a proposal isn't voted on the same day it advances out of committee in the House.

In a Monday interview, Bollin said she's "open to a conversation" about the signature language and said it needed to be "clarified" in the Senate. But she didn't specifically say whether she supports the idea of every in-person voter's signature being checked along with their ID at polling places.

“The intent is that we want voters to be able to properly ID themselves when they go to the polls," Bollin said.

The bill is now back in the Senate, where Republicans will be "taking a look and likely making some changes," said Abby Walls, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

Tracy Wimmer, spokeswoman for Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, said her office's understanding is the current legislation would require both photo ID and signature checks for every voter. The fact is clear that the House Elections Committee and Republican leadership weren't fully aware of what their bills would do and how they would make it harder to vote, Wimmer said.

"At the end of the day, their only real goal is to create confusing new rules that impede citizens' freedom to vote and harm our ability to administer secure elections," Wimmer said.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat, said the proposal, as it's currently written, would create lines at polling places and involve partisan precinct workers in checking in-person voters' signatures.

"It's really going to insert partisan politics in the election process," Byrum said.

The proposal could be the first from the Senate Republicans' 39-bill package to overhaul Michigan's election laws that would make it to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk. Whitmer is expected to veto it.