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Benson: Michigan GOP can’t switch from primaries to caucuses to choose state candidates

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at the Midland secretary of state branch office on Oct. 5, 2021.
Brett Dahlberg
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at the Midland secretary of state branch office on Oct. 5, 2021.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Monday that Republicans cannot switch to using closed-party caucuses instead of primaries to choose candidates for state offices. The state’s top election official registered her opinion after a faction of the Michigan GOP proposed the caucus system amid a fractious argument over who is running the party.

Benson – a Democrat – said state law does not offer leeway.

“Michigan election law specifies the method by which candidates for each office receive a party’s nomination and proceed to the general election,” said Angela Benander, Benson’s communications director. “Any changes to that law would require action by the Michigan Legislature.”

Kristina Karamo was elected Michigan Republican chair at a GOP convention last year. Her tenure signaled a hard-right turn and has been controversial as fundraising has collapsed, she tried to sell the party’s headquarters and many GOP elected officials have distanced themselves from her.

On Saturday, a state GOP governing board voted to oust her, but Karamo disputes the legitimacy of that vote. That argument could be headed to court.

Another issue is a Karamo plan to have nominations for offices including county commissions, the Legislature and statewide offices to accomplished via GOP caucuses, as opposed to the current method of primary elections. Karamo and her allies said that would ensure party stalwarts are choosing the candidates. But other party members said that would come at a cost of nominating candidates who can win November general elections.

The plan would also have required candidates to pay a fee to be considered at caucuses. The party’s fundraising has collapsed since Karamo was elected. Karamo did not respond to an interview request.

Election attorney Peter Ruddell with the Honigman law firm said Karamo’s faction would probably lose if the proposal is adopted and challenged.

“Michigan law requires that the major political parties hold their primary contests by direct elections and that’s been a tenet of Michigan election law since 1955 and before,” he told Michigan Public Radio. “So, the first thing I see as a problem is this is a direct conflict.”

Ruddell said parties have the right to manage their own internal affairs. But he said there is also a compelling public interest in how elections are managed.

“Courts have ruled that if the state has chosen that the major parties must elect candidates through a particular format, that is a valid exercise of state regulatory authority vis-a-vis the First Amendment’s right of association,” he said.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network.