Whitmer vetoes bills about pruning inactive voter registrations

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed two bills Friday that would require the Michigan Department of State to take a more proactive approach to pruning the state's voting rolls of inactive voters. 

The bills specifically require communications and removal actions related to registered voters in the qualified voter file who either have an unknown date of birth or have not voted in an election for more than 20 years. 

The bills are among several GOP-led pieces of legislation that Whitmer has killed over the past year as Republicans seek stricter voting standards in the wake of the 2020 election. Democrats have advocated looser policies providing more access to the election process. 

In her Friday veto letter, Whitmer said the measures "do not advance the goal of improving Michigan elections."

"Instead, they would burden clerks and voters while increasing costs to Michigan residents," Whitmer said. A Senate fiscal analysis last month estimated the mailing costs for the effort would come to about $100,000. 

Whitmer added that she would support policies that increased absentee ballot processing time, established an permanent absentee voter list or allowed overseas Michigan members of the military to vote electronically.

Rep. Matt Hall, a Marshall Republican who sponsored one of the bills, noted that the legislation was introduced well before the 2020 election and was in part based on a 2019 auditor general report showing concerns with the qualified voter file related to placeholder birthdays and inactive voters. In Michigan, when there is confusion over an individual's date of birth clerks often write in Jan. 1, 1900 as a placeholder until the date can be verified. 

When Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sent out absentee ballot applications to all of Michigan's registered voters ahead of the 2020 election, many homes reported that they'd received applications addressed to occupants who had not lived at the home for years, further reinforcing the need to update the qualified voter file, Hall said. 

"This shouldn't be political," Hall said. "The people of Michigan see the problems with our voter rolls, and this was a way that was reasonable and measured to fix our voter rolls and restore confidence in our elections.” 

The bills sponsored by Hall and Republican Rep. Julie Calley of Portland would require the Secretary of State's office to send a card to voters who have a "placeholder" indicating an unknown date of birth in the qualified voter file. It would also require a similar card be sent to an individual who has not voted since 2000 general election. 

The cards would require an individual to verify his or her date of birth or verify a current address. If a voter failed to respond or the card sent to them was returned as "undeliverable," a local clerk or Secretary of State would mark the voter as "challenged."

The registration of those voters marked "challenged" would be cancelled if he or she did not vote at least once within two general November elections after the notice was sent. 

Any cards returned would need to have their signatures checked and verified against the signature already in the qualified voter file. 

The Senate Fiscal Agency analysis of the bills estimated the qualified voter file currently has about 600 voters with placeholder birthdays and another 304,300 voters who have not voted since the 2000 general election. Mailing notices to each of those voters would cost about $100,000.

In committee last year, Benson's office said it was committed to the accuracy of the qualified voter file but the bills proposed by Republicans had the potential of removing eligible voters and making it "unnecessarily onerous" for eligible voters to stop their removal. 

The office said at that time — in March 2021 — it had canceled 177,000 registrations and had partnered with the Electronic Registration Information Center and local clerks to send notifications of possible cancellations to hundreds of thousands of other registrants.