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House OKs banning online absentee applications, SOS mailings

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Democrats said the latest bills would suppress voting after there was record turnout and no evidence of significant fraud.

The Republican-controlled Michigan House voted Thursday to prohibit digital signatures on absentee ballot applications and to ban unsolicited mailings of applications to voters, advancing more election bills that are unlikely to be signed by the Democratic governor.

In 2020, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson began enabling voters to apply for a ballot online. They can authorize the state to send their stored signature to their local clerk. They also must provide their driver’s license or state ID number, their birth date, eye color and the last four digits of their Social Security number.

One measure, approved 58-43 and sent to the Republican-led Senate, would require applicants to physically sign their application — requiring those who get one online to print, sign and mail, email or fax it back.

Another bill that passed 56-45 would ban the secretary of state from sending ballot applications to voters and let clerks do so only when they get a request. Benson in 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, mailed applications to millions of voters who were not already on permanent local lists and automatically receiving them.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed a similar proposed ban on unsolicited mailings last year.

Democrats said the latest bills would suppress voting after there was record turnout and no evidence of significant fraud. Republicans said they would increase voters’ confidence in elections and make voting more secure after the 2018 approval of a constitutional amendment expanding who can vote absentee.

“We shouldn’t vote for legislation to push the agenda of the far right to dismantle our democracy and overturn the people’s will to vote. To tell the people of Michigan that they have to jump through hoops in order to vote is wrong and it’s undemocratic,” said Rep. Brenda Carter, a Pontiac Democrat.

But Rep. Andrew Beeler, a Port Huron Republican and sponsor of the measure to require written signatures on absentee applications, said it would not be a “radical, controversial or unprecedented” change but rather a return to previous policy.

“These changes are common sense,” he said.

Other legislation that advanced would ban private funding of elections and changes rules related to election challengers and inspectors. Whitmer previously vetoed an attempt to prohibit private donations to help administer elections.

A ballot committee, Secure MI Vote, is circulating petitions that would enable Republican lawmakers to enact voting changes into law despite Whitmer’s opposition. The initiative would, among other things, toughen in-person voter identification rules and require people to include additional information such as their driver’s license number on absentee ballot applications.

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