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Judge: Michigan Secretary Of State’s Lax Ballot Signature Guidance Is Unconstitutional

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A judge ruled Wednesday that Michigan’s Democrat Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s guidance telling election officials to presume the validity of absentee ballot signatures is unconstitutional.

During the 2020 election, Benson sent out guidance to election officials “that included a presumption of validity for voters’ signatures on absentee-ballot applications and absentee ballots processed at the local level,” the ruling from Court of Claims Judge Christopher Yates explains.

The Michigan Republican Party and the Allegan County clerk initially challenged the presumption of validity provision, and the Court of Claims “determined that the guidance was impermissible.” In response to the ruling, the Michigan Department of State created new guidance for signature matching that included a provision requiring officials to presume that the signature being reviewed is valid. Yates, in his ruling, noted that there was a “strong” negative response to this particular provision during a public comment period, and the state agreed on striking the language.

The language nonetheless made it in the final version, “perhaps due to an oversight,” according to Yates’ ruling.

Benson then issued guidance in December of 2023 on how to conduct signature verification for absentee ballot applications and envelopes. The guidance, in part, states “[v]oter signatures are entitled to an initial presumption of validity.” The Michigan Republican Party, alongside the Republican National Committee (RNC) and other plaintiffs, sued the state and the Director of Elections arguing the guidance was “impermissible,” once again due to the presumption of validity provision. Yates ruled in agreement.

The court found that the state constitution “calls for a signature comparison without making any presumption for or against validity.”

“[T]he ‘initial presumption’ of validity in signature verification of absentee-ballot applications and envelopes mandated by the December 2023 guidance manual issued by defendants is incompatible with the Constitution and laws of the State of Michigan,” Yates ruled.

Yates also awarded a “declaratory judgment describing as impermissible all presumption language contained in the guidance manual for dealing with absentee-ballot applications and envelopes.”

Yates did, however, uphold a section of Michigan’s administrative code offering election officials possible “explanations for differences in signatures.” Some examples in the guidance include a shaky hand due to age or health, signing too fast, or even a difference in signature style.

The Michigan Supreme Court is set to hold a special session on June 18 to hear challenges to a manual Benson issued in May 2022. In that case, two separate groups have alleged that “various provisions of the manual violate the Michigan Election Law, and that it was promulgated without the notice-and-comment requirements outlined in the” Administrative Procedures Act, according to Michigan Lawyers Weekly.


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