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Judge says Michigan Secretary of State was allowed to send absentee ballot mailings

an absentee ballot on an envelope
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio

A Michigan Court of Claims judge has ruled Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was allowed to send every voter in the state an application to vote absentee instead of in-person. The judge rejected a legal challenge that said Benson, a Democrat, acted outside her authority as the state’s top elections official.

The ruling says the mailing sent to 7.7 million voters before the August primary did not infringe on the Legislature’s lawmaking authority. It says that’s because Benson was executing the will of voters who adopted no-reason absentee voting in 2018.

“The decision was what we expected,” said Secretary of State press secretary Jake Rollow, “which was that Secretary Benson has both the authority and the obligation to inform people of their voting rights and make sure they know how to exercise those rights, especially this year as we deal with the pandemic.”

Rollow said a postcard reminder will soon be sent to more than 4 million registered voters who have not requested an absentee ballot.

The opinion by Judge Cynthia Stephens says the Secretary of State “has clear and broad authority to provide advice and direction with respect to the conduct of elections and registrations.”

“…. That is all she has done here: she has provided direction for conducting an election during an unprecedented global pandemic involving a highly contagious respiratory virus.”

“I’m not surprised. I’m not impressed, and there are going to be further appeals on it,” said Nevin Cooper-Keel, one of the plaintiffs. Cooper-Keel – a Republican – said he thinks the mailings are self-promotional on Benson’s part, and an effort to use the power of her office to affect the results in November.

“It has a tendency to just be undue influence. If she wanted to form her own political action committee and send those types of things out using her own funds, that’d be completely different, but it’s not when she does it as an elected official.”

If Cooper-Keel or any of the other plaintiffs file a challenge, the next stop would be the state Court of Appeals. After that, the loser could take the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

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Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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