The Gongwer Blog

by Nick Smith, Staff Writer

JCAR Kicks Elections Rules Back To SOS Over Dem Objections

Posted: February 25, 2022 4:07 PM

Republicans requested changes Wednesday to proposed elections process administrative rules sought by the Department of State that the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules adopted and returned to the department for consideration along party lines.

The trio of rules promulgated by the department focuses on signature matching verification and candidate filings. The requested changes by Republicans would amend or strip away provisions in the proposed rules they said conflict with existing election law, also keying in on concerns they have expressed over creating a presumption that a voter's signature is genuine when reviewing an absentee ballot.

Democrats on JCAR objected to the requested changes put forth by the majority party prior to voting on them, alleging the changes would make signature verification more difficult and could prevent some individuals from voting.

The three rules – MOAHR 2021-060, MOAHR 2021-061 and MOAHR 2021-62 – were submitted to JCAR last December.

In the rules, as placed before the committee, a process would be created for determining whether signatures on absent voter ballot applications or ballot return envelopes agree sufficiently with a signature on file. Overall, the three rules are an attempt to establish uniform standards in areas including online absentee voter ballot applications and signature matching.

The rules would require clerks to presume a voter's signature is genuine when reviewing an absentee ballot. Republicans have opposed this provision, saying it contradicts existing state law.

The department can now either accept the proposed changes or it can reject and resubmit a proposed version of the rules to JCAR. The department has 30 days to decide which route it takes on the matter.

"We will have 30 days to review and respond. As we just received these proposed changes this morning, we will be reviewing now," Department of State spokesperson Tracy Wimmer said in a statement following the hearing.

Committee members requested several changes to MOAHR 2021-061, most notably a request to strike the presumption that a signature is valid, stating there is no presumption found in existing statute.

"The rule should not put a thumb of the scale but should mirror the statute and allow a clerk and board of election inspectors to weigh each signature on its own merits," documents explaining the proposed changes stated.

Another proposed change was regarding the department's proposal to expand the definition of "signature-on-file" to include the absentee voter application signature that agrees sufficiently with the Qualified Voter File or the mastercard.

Under statute, a board of election inspectors is required to search the QVF for a digital signature and the mastercard can be used only if there is no QVF digital signature. The proposed changes would require this part of statute to remain intact, stating that the department rule changes treat the QVF and mastercard as interchangeable.

The proposed changes also requested the department amend a provision creating a list of "redeeming qualities" election officials must use to determine a signature's validity. It was explained in the proposed changes that the list is overly broad as well as some items being vague and confusing.

Similarly, the proposed changes call for amending rules requiring election officials offer five possibilities as explanations of signature differences. The explanation given in documents outlining the proposed changes the committee adopted Wednesday said this could create opportunities for widespread abuse.

The changes sent back to the department for MOAHR 2021-062 were also significant.

Committee members requested the rule be changed to allow only an online request for an absentee ballot application.

If the rule is not struck or altered, the request further stated that other changes should be made to the definition of "stored digital signature." The request was that the department change the definition to include the most recent signature on file in either the motor vehicle database or the mastercard.

Another request was to strike the rule proposal to allow individuals without a digital signature on file to request an absentee ballot by uploading a picture of a physical signature.

"There is no statutory authority for such a rule, nor is there a quality control mechanism or requirement that the uploaded picture signature be sufficiently clear," the documents outlining the proposed changes stated.

Democrats on the committee were not pleased with the proposed changes being requested by the Republican majority.

"My concern is that valid electors will turn in their absentee ballot and their ballot will be rejected and they will thereby never get a chance to cast a ballot until the subsequent election. I think that would be a bad result," Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said.

He added that his belief was that the reason to not allow the use of the mastercard, which is more frequently updated, rather than the QVF electronic signature, would be to in effect use older signatures less likely to match.

"Therefore, more votes will be thrown out, that's what I'm reading here," Mr. Irwin said.

Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Okemos) said she did not receive the language of the proposed changes until Tuesday evening, providing insufficient time to review the proposals. She said transparency was missing from the process.

"My problem with this is that it doesn't appear to be in a collaborative spirit," Ms. Brixie said.

Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) said he was supportive of the rules in the interest of election integrity.

"Watering down signature requirements … this sort of stuff causes people to lose confidence in elections, and so I'm hopeful the secretary will take our recommendations today, look through these rules and make these changes so we can strengthen people's confidence in elections," Mr. Hall said.

Mr. Hall added people need to be able to trust the signature verification process and the proposed changes would aid in that goal.

Rep. Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville) told reporters his concerns are over the department's proposed signature verification changes.

He said ultimately, he does not want to have people think that it is hard to vote.

"But I do want those that are voting to be legitimate," Mr. Meerman said. "If every signature has to be accepted at face value, I think that … takes away a lot from what the clerks have been doing."

Mr. Irwin said after the hearing he believed the proposed changes would make it harder to vote and easier to discard ballots over signature questions. He said the fight over the rules is another part of the ongoing partisan fight between both parties over election policy following the November 2020 elections.

"I'm disappointed that there are people out there who are still so committed to Donald Trump that they would make it harder for people to vote in the future because they're frustrated about that election loss," Mr. Irwin said.

Things Starting To Come Into Focus After Redistricting

Posted: January 28, 2022 3:07 PM

The 2022 election candidate picture is still not fully in focus but is clearer in the month since the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission adopted its slate of district maps for the Legislature and U.S. House.

While the deadline for candidates to file for primary races isn't until April 19, there has been a growing wave of candidates filing for both legislative chambers and for Congress.

Candidates can of course file at any time. In most election years there may be a slow trickle of filings for months before the new election year begins. But with it being a redistricting cycle, the lion's share waited until the new district lines were official and filings really began in earnest after the beginning of the new year.

And due to the redistricting process taking until the end of December 2021, we are experiencing a more compressed period than usual.

Of course, this does not account for what could happen pending the results of any of the lawsuits filed following the adoption of the new maps. Stay tuned.

So far, there could be potentially bruising primaries for at least one party in at least five U.S. House races. There could also be primaries in at least 16 state Senate races and in at least 31 state House races, based on listings of current or likely candidates. Depending on what many incumbents do or do not do could make these numbers shift even further ahead of the filing deadline.

For this cycle with all of that in mind, the state really is in uncharted territory. There are numerous factors in play.

What if the courts order changes to one or more of the maps in any of the various lawsuits? If they do, how quickly will decisions be made and changes considered acceptable?

This could spark a flurry of amended candidate filings. What if the deadline needs to be pushed back if the process becomes a mess in the courts?

And on and on.

It is arguably a slightly more condensed period for candidates that could get worse.

One upside, however, might arguably be for the average resident that really does not tune in to election news until closer to voting day. Any delays could make the "election season," at least for primaries, shorter.

For the average resident who does not follow the process closely or care until it gets close to election time, having a potentially shorter or less chaotic election season could be good news for those individuals out there who get tired of expensive, year-round election cycles that seem to never end.

Look at the heightened partisanship of the last several election cycles. For those who do not care to be bothered with elections until later in the process, a shorter period for candidates to be out on the campaign trail in their confirmed districts due to the potential unknowns might be music to their ears.

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