Would Republican bills make certifying Michigan elections harder or fairer?

·7 min read

Apr. 6—LANSING — Despite a fierce partisan fight over Michigan's 2020 election, county boards comprised of Democrats and Republicans voted to certify the results, a crucial achievement that some worry could become more difficult under new bills in the state Legislature.

The proposals are one part of a sweeping 39-bill package sponsored by Republicans, who control the Senate. The legislation would increase the size of canvassing boards in large Michigan counties, most of which lean Democratic, and would require multiple board members from both parties to sign off on actions taken by the panels, including approving election results.

Currently, all 83 counties, regardless of size, have four-person boards — two Republicans and two Democrats. It takes only one member of the other party to join two members of the opposing party to certify an election.

"They're trying to legalize cheating," said Jonathan Kinloch, a Democrat who served on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers last year. "The role of the board of canvassers is to review the election returns that are presented to them and to certify the canvass."

He added: "All they want to do is have more people to influence to basically throw out elections."

Republicans don't agree with the assessment.

They say by growing the size of the boards in large counties, there will be more people available to help with the canvassing process, which centers on the verification of election records, including the list of participating voters and precinct totals.

"If the canvass is complete, if you've made it through all of the precincts and you've made all of the corrections, you have to vote yes," said Monica Palmer, a Republican who currently chairs the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, addressing concerns the larger boards could lead to blocked certifications.

On March 24, Senate Republicans introduced 39 bills that would bring sweeping changes to Michigan's election process. They include controversial ones to ban Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from sending out absentee ballot applications to people who haven't requested them and require applicants for absentee ballots to present or attach a copy of identification.

The proposals come amid a national to push by Republicans to change voting laws after the November election, which Republican former President Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump's supporters raised an array of concerns about how the election was administered, including the use of absentee ballots, and levied unproven claims of voter fraud. Many of the GOP complaints in Michigan focused on Wayne County, the state's largest county and a Democratic stronghold.

With national attention on it on Nov. 17, Wayne County's board of canvassers initially deadlocked 2-2 on whether to certify the results. Later that night during a tense meeting, the Republicans, including Palmer, who voiced concerns about out-of-balance precinct voter totals, changed course and approved the tallies. Palmer later attempted to rescind her vote on the final certification.

Some in the GOP had pressured the Republican canvassers to oppose certification. Democrats had widely urged them to approve it.

Less than a week after the Wayne County decision, the State Board of Canvassers, which also features two Republicans and two Democrats, voted 3-0 to certify the statewide totals, including Biden's 154,000-vote victory over Trump. One Republican member, Norm Shinkle, abstained while the other, Aaron Van Langevelde, cast the deciding vote in favor of certification.

Upping the membership

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, chairman of the Oversight Committee, is the sponsor of multiple new bills that would change how canvassing boards operate. His committee examined last year's election in the weeks following Nov. 3.

The proposals would give canvassers more time to do their work by moving the deadline for local certification from no later than 14 days after an election to no later than 21 days and provide for more people in larger counties to take part in the process by increasing board membership, McBroom said. The change would allow canvassers in places like Wayne County, where Palmer serves, to be more involved in the canvass.

"She was asked to accept that the people that they had hired had solved all of the imbalances without getting an explanation of how those things were solved," McBroom said of the 2020 situation.

The imbalances refer to situations where voter list totals did not match ballot cast totals. About 70% of the 134 absentee counting boards in Detroit, Wayne County's largest city, and 17% of its Election Day precincts were found to be out of balance without explanation.

One of McBroom's bills would require at least one board member from each party to be present during the canvass process and would specifically give the boards the power to hire each assistant the county clerk employs for the process.

Another bill would alter the number of board members in large counties. Under it, in counties with populations over 750,000, canvassing boards would have eight members — four Republicans and four Democrats — and it would take five yes votes for the panel to certify an election, including two Republicans and two Democrats.

There are three Michigan counties with populations over 750,000: Wayne, Oakland and Macomb in Metro Detroit. Biden won in Wayne and Oakland counties, while Trump prevailed in Macomb.

Similarly, counties with populations over 200,000 would have six-member canvassing boards with three Republicans and three Democrats. The bill would still require two Republicans and two Democrats to certify an election. So instead of getting 50% of the other party's membership to approve results as is necessary currently, 66% would be required.

Six counties would fall into this category: Kent, Genesee, Washtenaw, Ingham, Ottawa and Kalamazoo. Trump won Ottawa County, while Biden triumphed in the remaining five counties — including Kent, a traditional Republican stronghold that had been trending more Democratic.

Of the nine counties that would see larger canvassing boards under the bills, seven voted for Biden last year and two voted for Trump.

The change is focused on larger counties because those are the places where additional people are needed for the canvassing process, McBroom said. Larger boards wouldn't be necessary in smaller counties, he said.

'No reason'

But Mark Brewer, the former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and an election lawyer, argued that increasing the size of the boards would boost the ability of Republicans to block the certification of results in future elections.

The changes would set up a situation where new board members, inspired by the 2020 election fight, can obstruct and disrupt a 60-year-old system, he said.

"There is no reason other than partisan mischief to change it now," Brewer said.

The former chairman also noted another proposal in the 39-bill package that would empower the canvassing boards to approve absentee voter drop boxes, which have become the focus of GOP questions about the election.

Brewer is concerned that the boards won't even be able to agree on the use of drop boxes because of Republican fears about absentee voting.

McBroom countered the canvassing boards already approve containers used to transport ballots.

"It's not a significant change," the GOP Senate committee chairman said.

More difficult to certify?

Kinloch, the former member of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, and other Democrats contended the bills will be a significant change.

If there were four Republicans working in lockstep on the Wayne County board in November 2020, it's more likely they would have withstood the pressure and opposed certification, Kinloch said. Potentially, that would have set up a legal battle over the results in Michigan's largest county.

"The night absolutely would have gone differently," Kinloch said.

The system worked in 2020, he said. "This is unnecessary legislation and not worth the paper that it's written on," Kinloch added.

Barb Byrum, a Democrat and the clerk for Ingham County, likes the idea of increasing the size of canvassing boards in large counties and extending the deadline to certify the elections.

But requiring supermajorities to make decisions is not how boards and commissions typically work, Byrum said.

The requirement that two-thirds of a political party's membership in some counties sign off to certify the results will make the task more difficult, she said. Instead, Byrum said she simply wants the process to be thorough and transparent by providing more canvassers and give them more time.

The Michigan Republican Party is planning to back a legislative initiative to impose the election law changes if Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won't sign them. If Republicans gathered enough signatures — more than 340,000 would be needed — the GOP-controlled Legislature could approve the proposal into law without Whitmer being able to veto it.

cmauger@detroitnews.com