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Criminal Justice & Legal System

SOS signature-matching guidelines for absentee ballots ruled "invalid" by judge

michigan absentee ballot
Jodi Westrick
/
Michigan Radio

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson put out guidance to county and local clerks for signature matching on absentee ballots in October, prior to the 2020 election. Now, a Court of Claims judge has ruled that guidance to be invalid.

In October, Benson said that a signature on an absentee ballot should be presumed valid unless it differed “in multiple, significant and obvious respects from the signature on file.”Allegan County Clerk Robert Genetski and the Michigan Republican Party brought a lawsuit against Benson in her official capacity in December over the rule.

Judge Christopher Murray wrote in his opinion that Benson did not follow rule-making processes when issuing guidance, and so clerks did not have to follow the rule in upcoming elections. 

"Nowhere in this state’s election law has the Legislature indicated that signatures are to be presumed valid, nor did the Legislature require that signatures are to be accepted so long as there are any redeeming qualities in the application or return envelope signature as compared with the signature on file." he wrote. "Policy determinations like the one at issue—which places a thumb on the scale in favor of a signature’s validity—should be made pursuant to properly promulgated rules under the APA or by the Legislature."

The APA refers to the Administrative Procedures Act of 1969, which sets up procedures for rule-making for state agencies, as well as state agency administrative procedures. Murray wrote that Benson's guidance "amounted to a 'rule' that should have been promulgated in accordance with the APA. And absent compliance with the APA, the 'rule' is invalid."

Ted Goodman is the communications director for the Michigan Republican Party. He says they're pleased with the judge's ruling.

"We are pleased that the court agreed that the secretary of state cannot direct local clerks to ignore Michigan election law. However, we are disappointed that clerks were told not to truly verify absentee ballot signatures for the 2020 election," he said. "We have to ensure that our elections are safe and secure. And I don’t think anyone is opposed to certain steps that ensure and protect the vote of each and every American."

The plaintiffs had requested relief in the form of an audit of the November 2020 election, particularly with regards to the signatures on absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications. Murray noted that the Michigan constitution gives the plaintiffs the right to request an audit of the election results, not signature matching procedures, and says the claims are without merit.

The Secretary of State's office says it has no comment at this time.

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