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Secretary of State touts voter measures

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks to voters at a League of Women Voters of the Copper Country forum in Hancock Monday night.

HOUGHTON — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson spoke to Copper Country residents Monday night about the progress of two voter initiatives approved in November.

The Copper Country League of Women Voters organized the presentation at Hancock High School, at which Benson also took questions from residents.

Proposal 3 allows Michigan voters to register up to Election Day and allows for no-reason absentee voting by mail. Proposal 2 puts legislative redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, rather than lawmakers.

Starting this year, voters were able to register at their township or city clerk on Election Day.

“It’s a groundbreaking change because now there’s no one who can claim they can’t vote because they weren’t registered,” she said.

Turnout is already going up under the new system, Benson said. In May elections, more than 400 citizens registered on Election Day. More than 300 of them were 18 or 19 years old, she said. Those trends held in August.

“This provision is going to make sure that they have an avenue to having their voice heard, and they’re already taking advantage of that,” she said.

Another provision will automatically register eligible voters who come into the Secretary of State branch to get a driver’s license or ID. However, people can still opt out.

There have been delays in rolling out the program, due to the needs for protections to make sure only citizens are automatically registered, Benson said.

“We know how important it is on the local level and the statewide level

Voters can apply by mail for an absentee ballot, so long as the application is received by 5 p.m. the Friday before an election. Voters can also drop off their application at their township or city clerk’s office by 4 p.m. the Monday before Election Day.

Benson said the state is working to make sure citizens can track their ballots to make sure it has been received and counted. The state is also working with local clerks, who have asked for extra hours to process ballots.

About twice as many voters are anticipated to vote absentee under the new law, Benson said.

“It’s really exciting, in my view, because we need an informed and engaged electorate for our elections to work, for our democracy to be healthy, and part of that means high turnout,” she said.

The last part of the proposal is post-election audits of machines to make sure machines are accurately counting ballots. Benson hopes to have that ready statewide for next year.

“What that will give you is confidence that when you cast your ballot through the machine, the machines are accurately counting and tallying the ballots,” she said.

Benson also laid out the process for setting up the 13-member commission that will draw Congressional, state House and state Senate districts for 2022. The commission must consist of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents.

“What the data shows is that when citizens draw lines for our district, they are better and more competitive and more fair than when anyone else does it,” she said.

A draft application form is available at the state’s redistricting website, redistrictingmichigan.org. The application process will be open from October to June 2020. In June, 200 people will be randomly chosen; the legislature will be able to strike about 20 names. From that pool, the final 13 members will be randomly selected.

From October 2020 to October 2021, the committee will holds hearings and solicit comments through the state, before submitting final maps.

“We’re going to hopefully ensure that the Commission holds at least one, if not two, hearings and open sessions in the Upper Peninsula,” Benson said.

The redistricting commission is the subject of a lawsuit by the Michigan Republican Party, that argue by barring party operatives and their family members, the law goes against state law preventing discrimination based on political affiliation.

Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats, have asked the federal court hearing the case to dismiss it.

“As a constitutional scholar and First Amendment attorney, I think that the claims are quite weak,” Benson said after Monday’s forum. “And really, it’s just a political move to try to thwart the will of the voters that you heard quite loud and clear in 2018. So we’re moving forward with implementing the redistricting commission that citizens voted to create and confident that it will be a great process and a great success.”

Benson also addressed resident concerns that the Dollar Bay-Tamarack City Area Schools bond election was not well-publicized enough. She praised the performance of Houghton County Clerk Jennifer Kelly.

“Every rule was followed, every expectation was met,” she told Kelly. “Thank you for what you’ve done.”

Asked about securing elections from foreign interference, Benson said one of the first things she did upon taking office was creating a task force of previous Secretaries of State and election experts to develop a plan to secure vulnerabilities. She has also Michigan to the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which shares data amongst states so residents can be removed from the voter roll when they move out of the state, or in the case of death.

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