A voter fills out her ballot at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit during the primary election on Aug. 4, 2020. (Photo by Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press)

On National Poll Worker Day, Michigan legislators began discussing ways to enforce more rigid — and costly — rules for municipalities and those who ensure elections are fair.

The House Elections and Ethics Committee has spent the past month discussing limited timelines for valid signatures on state identification to vote, tightened absentee voter drop box rules, and more stringent guidelines for poll challengers. 

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Michigan House Republicans introduced a swath of election-related bills last summer that they say will ensure the accuracy of elections, even though all evidence has shown that the state’s vote count process is already fair, accurate and secure. Democrats have widely criticized the extensive package and called it a costly and unnecessary burden that will deter Michiganders from participating in future elections. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed the package last fall, but with enough voter signatures and support from the Board of State Canvassers, state lawmakers have the power to override her decision. 

Republicans contend that invalid absentee ballots were used in the November 2020 election after the secretary of state allowed Michiganders to vote absentee without reason and to register to vote on Election Day. 

“Looking back, we’ve learned a lot from the big election in 2020 with same day registration, a lot of people applying with no reason absentee,” Ann Bollin, chair of the Elections and Ethics Committee, said during their January meeting.

Detroit was scrutinized during and after the November 2020 presidential election. Trump supporters stormed the TCF Center where votes were being counted, filed lawsuits against the vote count process, and tried to certify all votes except those from Detroit residents. 

Molly Sweeney, director of organizing at 482 Forward, was a challenger at the TCF Center the evening of the presidential election on Nov. 3, 2020. She said the building had a “contentious vibe.” Sweeney was present to ensure the challenger system was balanced and that both parties were represented.

“People were absolutely there on purpose to interrupt and critique the process, and the poll workers were the heroes,” she said. “They had a very strong process from the inspectors to the team leaders who were there on the floor. They were making sure that things were going smoothly and setting clear boundaries for folks, but there were a lot of things that the GOP challengers (were doing) that were really intimidating.”

Sweeney said the scene was filled with an “air of scrutiny and suspicion” that led to “hostile disruptions.”

Following their unsuccessful attempts at the local level, Republicans are now arguing for state policy change through legislative decision-making.  

The Elections and Ethics Committee has discussed reducing the time that signatures are valid on state identification cards from 12 years to eight. Absentee voters’ signatures are used to verify their identity when casting their vote. Under federal law, absentee voters have to update their signature only every 16 years, but Michigan shortened the length of time in 2020 to 12 years. Now, just two years later, Republicans want to shorten it again, to eight years.

Bollin said that changing the rules and requiring voters to update their information more often will be a “great tool in the toolbox for clerks.”

But local elections experts disagree. 

Aghogho Edevbie, state director of All Voting is Local, said the signature requirements seem unnecessary since nothing has changed at the federal level and no fraud was found. The expert said it’s strange for a House committee to act on its own, without cooperation from the secretary of state or the governor — and he finds that a cause of concern for every Michigan voter.

“Bills like this, I think, really seem to undermine confidence in the election process,” he said. “I want to see a more detailed explanation of why we need to cut in half a federal standard and why even revisit the standards that Michigan passed a mere two years after the previous standard.”

The committee discussed further regulation of absentee voter drop boxes and collection procedures in early February. All drop boxes must be inspected by an election official under the new requirements, be bolted to the ground and have the ability to be locked. Detroit was highlighted during the committee meeting for already exceeding absentee ballot box security measures. 

The committee unanimously voted in favor of updated challenger rules in the vote count process last Tuesday. Detroiters witnessed challengers who pressed their faces up against the glass doors of the TCF Center and overbearing interactions on the floor during the November 2020 election. Should the bill move forward, challengers will be expected to wear brightly colored badges that identify them as challengers, and each challenge will be recorded in an official book. 

Challenger rules in Michigan currently require individuals to carry an identification card and present it on request. The new law would require them to wear the badge in plain sight. Current process rules also require that challenged ballots are handled by an inspector, go through a vote tabulator and can be retrieved for only post-election examination through court order.

When Whitmer vetoed the bills in October 2021, she included lack of supplemental funding as a reason. The state House has yet to address the funding gap these changes would incur at the municipal level.

Edevbie said the proposed changes would be more helpful if they ensured further accountability within the challenger and observer process. However, Edevbie said that, conceptually, “it’s a bad idea.”

“The problem I have with this bill is that it’s piecemeal,” Edevbie said. “This conversation, the whole entire process around challengers, and challenges, and challenger training and credentialing needs to take place as a part of a bigger and more holistic conversation, and that’s not what’s being done here. Plus, one of the big problems with the bill was that it doesn’t provide additional funding.”

For some, the proposed changes are an ongoing partisan attempt to prevent Black and Brown voters from participating in elections.

Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action and a longtime Detroiter, was an observer at TCF Center the day after the election. He said that it was obvious that some challengers were trying to slow down the vote count process.  

Snyder was the regional director of the vote recount during the 2016 election in Genesee County, and said he saw eerie similarities in Republican behavior in cities with majority Black populations.

“We knew we were losing and (when that happens), you still have to watch and make sure the process is done fairly,” he said. “But they were challenging everything and trying to throw out votes. So I think that mind-set of challenging anything just to slow down a process is really sad, because what ends up happening is that all you’re doing is trying to stop the clock instead of actually addressing potential electoral problems.”

The local organizer said a more formal challenger process would be “great” if training was involved to designate offenses that were realistic. However, Snyder said today’s priority is ensuring that all eligible Michiganders who can vote have the ability to do so.  

“We want it to be fair and accessible,” he said.  

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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1 Comment

  1. What’s so bad about having to plan ahead for something you know happens every year? Or about verifying you are who you say you are? Or that you actually live in the place you are trying to vote or are actually eligible to vote? If you aren’t trying to do anything illegal, this shouldn’t be that difficult. I can already tell you when the next election is so it isn’t that hard to be prepared for it

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