Michigan lawmakers use maneuver to delay Benson's new absentee signature rules

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Republican lawmakers used a rule-making maneuver Tuesday to delay the adoption of rules that would govern signature verification and online applications for absentee ballots. 

The six GOP members of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules voted in favor of introducing the rules proposed by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in the form of bills in the House and Senate, starting a 270-day clock for the adoption of the bills. 

Under Michigan's convoluted rule-making process, Benson's rules cannot take effect until after that 270-day clock expires — meaning the they likely won't take effect until after the November election and the completion of Benson's first term. 

The GOP-led Legislature is unlikely to adopt Benson's existing rules. Any amendments the chambers made to the proposed rules would have to be signed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is unlikely to agree with changes made by Republicans.

The 6-3 vote Tuesday along party lines came after Benson agreed to some changes requested by the committee. Those compromises weren't enough, said Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo.

"Ultimately, the department rejected almost every change requested by the committee and made only minor changes to the two withdrawn rule sets," said Bumstead, who chairs the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. He added that the introduction of the rules as bills would "allow the Legislature to fully deliberate on the subject of the proposed rules through the usual lawmaking process."

Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, questioned her Republican colleagues' motivations, noting the bills being introduced are identical to those the committee could allow to move forward immediately. 

"It appears to be just a political stunt or technique and a bait and switch," Brixie said. "They're going to switch it out."

Benson on Tuesday criticized the vote, noting Bumstead allowed no discussion during the eight-minute meeting before pushing the rules on to the Legislature, where it is likely to encounter delays. 

"...Legislative leaders seem more interested in playing games than doing the peoples' work," Benson said in a statement. "And stalling these rules past the November elections is a disappointment and abdication of their role to put what's best for their constituents ahead of what's best for their party."

The rules proposed by Benson last summer would require local clerks to start with a presumption of validity when examining signatures for absentee voter applications and ballots and mandate that clerks offer online absentee voter applications. A third rule would increase the information candidates must submit to clerks as well as increase the work clerks must do to verify a candidate's eligibility for the ballot. 

Republicans have argued the rules conflict with state election law and the Michigan Constitution and create an "undue burden" for local clerks. Benson's office has maintained the rules do not conflict with state law and would help clerks by clarifying areas of law that have remained unclear for years. 

Nonetheless, Benson accepted two proposed changes. One of the changes would modify some of the information candidates are required to submit to clerks and another would remove the requirement that signatures should be reviewed "beginning with the presumption that the voter's signature is his or her genuine, valid signature."

The "presumption" language was one of the more controversial segments of the rules. But GOP lawmakers also opposed the idea of online absentee voter applications in part because of the signature guidelines for those online applications. 

Separate from the administrative rules proposed, a Republican-led petition initiative, Secure MI Vote, is seeking to tighten absentee ballot requirements with a proposal that would run counter to Benson's proposed changes.

Benson proposed the absentee rules after a state Court of Claims judge in March 2021 overturned signature verification guidance Benson had issued to local clerks prior to the November 2020 election. 

About four months after the election, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray said the guidance directing clerks to presume the accuracy of absentee signatures went “beyond the realm of mere advice and direction” and became a “substantive directive” that should have gone through the administrative rule-making process.