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Court of Claims judge fast-tracking decision on state's absentee ballot guidance

An absent voter ballot from the Lansing city clerk.
Karel Vega
An absent voter ballot from the Lansing city clerk.

A Michigan Court of Claims judge said this week that he is putting a decision on a legal challenge to state election guidance on a fast track.

Judge Christopher Yates said he expects to issue a ruling right in the next couple of weeks on the challenge to guidance from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on processing absentee ballots and verifying signatures on absentee ballot forms against signatures on file with election clerks.

The Democratic secretary of state says it’s necessary to implement a voting rights amendment to the Michigan Constitution that passed in 2022. The Republican National Committee is among the plaintiffs challenging the guidance.

Assistant Attorney General Heather Meingast represented the secretary of state in Monday’s Court of Claims arguments. She said the guidance will help local clerks know what to look for when they're comparing signatures on ballot sleeves against what is on file.

“That’s exactly what this rule does — it fills in some gaps, giving clerks some understanding of discrepancies and significant dissimilarities,” Meingast said. “Otherwise, you have nothing. There’s zero guidance on what’s a significant discrepancy.”

The plaintiffs include the Republican National Committee, the Michigan Republican Party, a township clerk and others. They argue the guidance puts a spin on the rules that leaves too much room for mistakes or mischief.

GOP attorney Robert Avers said the guidance is not necessary.

“There are a lot of safeguards built in that prevent disenfranchisement,” he said, adding the constitution’s early voting window gives voters and election officials time to correct discrepancies. He said, for example, the law requires that voters get a text when an absentee ballot is rejected.

“There’s a lot more work on the front end for election officials, but we’ve also given them 40 days on the front end of an election to start verifying the signatures,” he said.

Yates, the judge, said he expects to have a decision ready within the next couple of weeks, keeping in mind that whatever he decides will probably be appealed by the losing side.

“I will do my level best to try and turn this one around by the end of Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “I know time is of the essence and I want to be sure that if anyone wants to seek appellate review that you have ample opportunity to do that.”

In a little over five weeks, clerks will start the period of checking signatures on absentee ballot applications with a mandatory “reasonable effort” to verify or reject the signature within one business day.

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