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Michigan Republicans Delay Absentee Ballot Signature Rules

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Republican lawmakers on Tuesday delayed until after the November election rules that will tell Michigan election clerks how to match the signatures of people applying for and submitting absentee ballots.

The GOP-led Joint Committee on Administrative Rules’ maneuver to propose bills keeps the regulations from taking effect for nine months. The rules drafted by the state elections bureau eventually will go into effect because Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, would likely veto Republicans’ alternative legislation.

The latest step “will help facilitate an open, public debate on these important issues and we hope the secretary of state will participate in that process,” the panel’s chair, Sen. Jon Bumstead of Newaygo, and alternative chair, Rep. Luke Meerman of Coopersville, said in a statement.

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, whose department includes the elections agency, previously denied most revisions recommended by the panel. She said the regulations will codify practices that have already been in place.

“But legislative leaders seem more interested in playing games than doing the peoples’ work, and stalling these rules past the November elections is a disappointment and abdication of their role to put what’s best for their constituents ahead of what’s best for their party,” she said in a statement.

Benson began the rule-making process in 2021 after a state judge invalidated signature-verification standards she had given local clerks a month before the 2020 presidential election. The judge said the guidance amounted to a rule and therefore should have gone through the formal rule-making process. Benson’s directive was issued the day a law was signed requiring clerks to quickly contact voters with a missing or nonmatching signature.

She has since softened the signature standards to be voluntary, not mandatory, while the rules are adopted. They will be in place for the August primary and November general election.

Michigan law says a voter’s signature must “agree sufficiently” with what is on file but does not elaborate. The rules will tell officials to consider if there are “redeeming qualities” between two signatures. Those include similar distinctive flourishes, more matching features than nonmatching features and whether it appears the voter’s hand was trembling or shaking.

The rules also will instruct officials to consider explanations for differences in signatures such as aging, slight changes over time and the use of initials.

Republicans have said the rules will allow invalid, forged signatures to be counted amid a surge in absentee voting, and they will change — not codify — longstanding practices. There is no evidence of widespread fraud or collusion.

An Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in six battleground states disputed by former President Donald Trump found fewer than 475, a number that would have made no difference in the outcome. Yet Republicans have passed bills, which were vetoed, that would have toughened in-person voter identification rules and required people to include additional information such as their driver’s license number on absentee ballot applications.

Republicans also oppose rules related to online absentee ballot applications Benson made available to voters starting in 2020. Republicans have questioned allowing people to use a stored digital signature or to upload their own version instead of signing in ink.

To apply online, voters must provide their driver’s license or state ID number, their birth date and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

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