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Editorial: Preserve integrity, safety of the vote

The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel are getting most of the attention in the state’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, but Michigan's other top statewide official deserves some scrutiny, too.

May brings both an election as well as the petition deadline for a ballot campaign. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and her office have an important role in both. And even more pressing is the April 21 candidate filing deadline.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, left, answers questions from media during a press conference with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on election fraud charges against Southfield City Clerk Sherikia L. Hawkins.

The virus has added complications for all of these dates, but Benson, in conjunction with Whitmer and Nessel, should be very careful about how they handle them as they could set new precedents moving forward.

Benson has remained firm that the May 5 election should continue as planned, even though she has closed all of her branch offices for safety reasons. Dozens of communities have scheduled elections, mostly related to school funding proposals. Some have smartly opted to move their elections to August. Others were waiting for direction from Benson. 

Somewhat oddly, Whitmer also is steadfast that the election should be held, and an executive order from late last month mandated that all new voter registrants should automatically be mailed a ballot. This compounded a decision Benson had earlier made in March to send out absentee ballot applications to all impacted voters. This overrides the role local clerks play, and was questioned by several state lawmakers. 

More:Whitmer to clerks: Send all new registrants an absentee ballot for May 5

Whitmer has determined it’s too dangerous for Michiganians to buy a can of paint under her stay-home order, yet she doesn’t have a problem with making local clerks and poll workers — and citizens — undergo an election. Even if precautions are taken and most voting is done via mail, it doesn’t preclude in-person voting and day-of voter registration. Even processing and counting absentee ballots exposes volunteers to all kinds of risk. 

Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, has pleaded with Benson to postpone the election. Johnson, the former secretary of state, has heard from concerned clerks all over Michigan. And she says they are all having difficulties finding election workers, as they tend to be older and are worried about COVID-19. And she points to how at least 16 states have chosen to delay scheduled elections until the virus subsides. 

“I don’t know one clerk who doesn’t want to combine with August,” Johnson says. “Clerks got zero input.”

Just look at what played out in Wisconsin earlier this month when that state moved forward with its election, even though the Democratic governor sought to halt it. Confusion reigned, and long lines were prevalent. 

In addition, Michigan should avoid setting a new standard for how petition signatures can be gathered. The Fair and Equal Michigan ballot campaign to add LGBTQ protections in state law made the executive decision last week to start “gathering” signatures online. This is unprecedented, and it’s legality is dubious despite claims by the campaign. 

More:Gay rights petition campaign plans to gather signatures electronically

The group needs to collect more than 340,000 signatures by May 27, and had only collected 150,000 signatures prior to moving to the online format. 

A spokesman for Benson says the office has “not yet conducted a full legal analysis” and is unsure how long that will take. 

Candidates seeking a run for office are also faced with a Tuesday signature filing deadline to get on the ballot. Benson has asked Whitmer for a deadline extension, but the governor is still mulling whether that date or the requirements could be changed. She needs to offer candidates some clarity. 

More:AG: April 21 petition deadline for candidates a 'necessary cog'

The Legislature also must get involved in all of these questions and assert its oversight and policy making authority.

During this crisis, our state's leaders must carefully navigate these matters that fundamentally impact our democracy.