Don’t chill speech in reforming elections
On the heels of a contentious election, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson isn’t wasting time in calling for sweeping changes to Michigan elections. She says she wants to work with the Legislature, and that’s where the discussions should take place.
The package she proposes is a mix of good and bad ideas. But one thing Benson should ditch is a measure to silence those who question the integrity of future elections — a dangerous role for the government to assume.
The focus must be on the transparency and accuracy of our elections, so that voters trust the process. Many Michiganians don’t have faith in the November election.
It will take a bipartisan approach to soothe concerns.
“We all have a stake in well-run elections,” Benson said in a recent interview with our editorial board, noting the 2020 election “revealed a great deal” about what needs attention ahead of 2022.
Benson, a Democrat, says her proposals are “nonpartisan,” but the GOP-led Legislature has already pushed back against some of her ideas.
House Elections Chairwoman Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, called the proposals “emotionally charged.”
“Our focus must be on improving transparency, protecting election integrity and restoring the public’s trust — not on constitutionally questionable proposals that advance the secretary of state’s own political agenda,” Bollin said in a statement.
If Benson’s aim is truly nonpartisan, we would caution her to avoid several extremely partisan fights. Along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, she is seeking the disbarment of four attorneys who sued over Michigan’s election results. The law allows for election challenges, and the courts are the right venue to resolve these questions. Punishing those who use the courts for the purposes the law intends feels overly punitive — and could serve to quell legitimate future election challenges.
Along those lines, Benson is also trying to crack down on free speech by targeting election misinformation.
“We do want to make it a felony offense to intentionally disseminate false information about an election that leads to the deterrence or misleading of voters,” she says.
The problems with that are obvious. Again, it could serve to deter the raising of legitimate concerns about the integrity of elections. And determining the intent of someone who does repeat misinformation is a very subjective process.
Despite their differences, we think Benson and lawmakers should be able to find areas for compromise.
One of Benson’s primary goals is sending absentee ballot applications to all voters –even if they haven’t requested them. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the secretary of state did this unilaterally last year, upsetting Republican lawmakers, who felt she was in effect rewriting election law.
Although the courts upheld Benson’s right to send out the applications, the issue would be better worked out in the Legislature, and it would offer more stability for local clerks, who are usually tasked with the job.
Benson also wants clerks to have two additional weeks to process absentee ballots, now that no-reason absentee voting is guaranteed by the state constitution. This is something GOP leaders have indicated they are willing to discuss. In addition, Benson supports allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted.
Another idea is to make Election Day a state holiday. With mail-in voting now so much easier, it seems unnecessary to create yet another holiday.
Benson contends it would encourage more citizens to volunteer as poll workers. Yet she proved last year that by working with businesses and other organizations to drum up support, the polls were adequately staffed. It’s doubtful that simply giving people a paid holiday would translate into more enthusiastic volunteers.
Other ideas include a risk-limiting audit prior to state certification of elections to determine the accuracy of vote-counting machines. That’s a good idea lawmakers should embrace, as it may help ease concerns in future elections.
Similarly, Benson and Bollin have said they want to update the voter rolls. There seems to be more work to do here. Benson recently announced 177,000 voter registrations “slated for cancellation because the state has reason to believe the voter has moved away from the registration address.”
Reforms should be aimed at assuring the integrity of elections, and restoring voter confidence. That can be done without trampling on free speech or insulating election results from legitimate challenges.
— The Detroit News