Johnson blasts Benson’s proposed rules

LANSING, Mich. — Sen. Ruth Johnson heavily criticized two new administrative rules proposed by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in comments submitted to the Bureau of Elections on Oct. 1.

“These proposed rules hurt integrity,” said Johnson, who served as Michigan secretary of state from 2011 to 2018. “Michigan election law requires signatures on absentee ballots and applications to be verified by clerks, and these proposed rules would undermine that process. The law also requires voters to personally sign an application for an absentee ballot, and these rules do not comply with that law.”

Benson’s office proposed rules that would instruct clerks verifying signatures on absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications to begin with a “presumption that the voter’s signature is his or her genuine, valid signature” and that “if there are any redeeming qualities…the signature must be treated as valid.”

“The law says that clerks are to verify signatures to make sure they match voter registration records; telling clerks to assume signatures are valid before even looking at them is totally inappropriate and not consistent with Michigan election law,” said Johnson, R-Holly.

Benson’s proposed rules would also allow a clerk to consider hypothetical reasons why a voter’s signature might not match and choose to accept it even if it does not match the signature in voter registration records. Such reasons would include “the age of the voter” or “the possibility that the voter is disabled.”

“If the signature doesn’t match, the law does not provide for the clerk to guess why that might be; they should be contacting the voter to ensure that is who sent in the absentee ballot or application,” Johnson said. “These proposed rules do not implement the law, they are trying to undermine the law and they would damage integrity in our election processes.”

In a second letter, Johnson said that Benson’s proposed rule to create an online absentee ballot application was “a gross overreach of the rulemaking process.”

Johnson’s letter notes that state law requires “an applicant for an absent voter ballot shall sign the application. A clerk or assistant clerk shall not deliver an absent voter ballot to an applicant who does not sign the application.”

Under Benson’s proposed rules an “online absent voter ballot application must provide an opportunity for a voter to use the voter’s stored digital signature on file with the secretary of state on the application.”

“There is no provision in Michigan election law that provides for this alternative,” Johnson said. “The law clearly states that the applicant ‘shall sign’ the application. It does not say that an applicant shall sign the application or answer a few questions online and have the secretary of state affix a copy of their signature to their application for them.”

The Senate Elections Committee, which Johnson chairs, heard testimony from local clerks who pointed out that under the process Benson proposes, clerks would literally be asked to compare the signature on file in voter registration records with an exact copy of itself affixed by Benson’s office. This would defeat the purpose of existing election laws instructing clerks to compare these signatures to help verify the identity of voters.

The Secretary of State’s Office is now required to review and respond to public comments it has received on its proposed rules and examine whether changes should be made.

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