Michigan House OKs banning mailing of unsolicited ballot applications, again

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House on Thursday adopted a series of bills, largely along party lines, that would ban certain practices for absentee ballots and the financing of election equipment.

The legislation would stop the unsolicited mailing of absentee ballot applications, prohibit the use of digital signatures for absentee ballot applications and ban third parties from contributing money toward election equipment. 

The bills, which sponsors said would help to shore up election security, are likely headed for a veto from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should they get through the GOP-led Senate. In October, Whitmer vetoed almost identical legislation.

The provisions are also present in a petition initiative, Secure MI Vote, currently gathering signatures in the field and expected to be sent to the Legislature instead of the November ballot. Should the GOP-led Legislature adopt the proposal if it gets enough valid signatures, it would become law and avoid Whitmer's veto pen.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson mailed out absentee ballot applications to all of the state's 7.7 million registered voters during May and June 2020.

State Rep. Andrew Beeler, R-Fort Gratiot, said his bill banning electronic signatures on absentee ballot applications addresses Michigan's "vulnerable" elections by creating greater transparency and accountability.

"In any honest evaluation of election laws, Michigan is one of the easiest places to vote," Beeler said. "...In order to ensure that each new voice is heard, we cannot afford to have unsatisfactory safeguards in place to prevent fraud."

Democrats criticized the legislation as an attempt to suppress absentee voters on the unproven premise that there was fraud in the November 2020 election. 

"All these bills do is rob our disabled, our seniors, our Black and Brown voters from the freedom to vote," said Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac. "This bill will change the makeup of our electorate and negatively impact the lives of people we sit in this very chamber to serve."

Whitmer's office, when asked about the legislation, said Thursday the governor would "protect the will of Michigan voters and the integrity of our elections." "Robust" protections already are in place to do so, Whitmer's spokesman Bobby Leddy said in a statement.

“Every Michigander deserves to have their voice heard as they exercise their constitutional right to vote in a safe and secure election," Leddy said.. 

One bill, which passed 57-44, would ban a third party from contributing to any local government running elections either money to purchase election equipment or election equipment itself. The bill passed with the support of three Democrats: Reps. Sara Cambensy of Marquette, Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor and Richard Steenland of Roseville. 

A bill prohibiting county, city, or township clerks or the Secretary of State from sending unsolicited ballot applications passed 56-45, with Democrats Cambensy and Steenland supporting. The bills, sponsored by Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, also would prohibit clerks from making applications available earlier than 75 days before an election.

The third bill, prohibiting electronic or digital signatures for absentee ballot applications, passed 58-43, with Democratic state Reps. Kevin Coleman of Westland, Tullio Liberati of Allen Park, Cambensy and Steenland voting in support.

Some of the bills address actions Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took ahead of the November 2020 election, when in the midst of the pandemic she sent unsolicited absentee ballot applications to each of Michigan's 7.7 million registered voters. The state also allows an online absentee ballot applicant to click a box allowing the Secretary of State to send the voter's stored digital signature to his or her city or township clerk along with the application. 

Benson currently is working to formalize rules explicitly allowing for the acceptance of digital signatures on absentee ballot applications. 

Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, argued the GOP-led legislation passed Thursday will only make it harder to vote in the next election.

"If you vote yes on this bill to create a barrier between someone and their constitutional, fundamental right, I struggle to find the patriotism in that vote," he said. 

But Rep. Sarah Lightner, the sponsor of the bill banning third party contributions toward election equipment, argued elections should be funded by public funds and to adopt another funding source would sow doubt in the integrity of the state's elections. 

The Springport Republican pointed to doubts that arose over millions of dollars that went to local clerks from the the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life, a group associated with Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

 "How do you ever know if the money is being handed over with strings attached?" Lightner said. 

"Drawing this clear line in the sand gives the public peace of mind that our elections, which are a fundamental function of government, are funded solely by the government without undue influence from individuals pushing their own political agendas," she said.