Benson calls on Legislature to make threats against election officials a felony

By: - May 17, 2022 12:11 pm

George Frey/Getty Images

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called on lawmakers Tuesday to make it a felony to make threats against election officials and their families.

Benson asked the GOP-led Legislature to work with her on specifics of legislation that would make it a felony to attack, harass or dox election workers and their families, including when people show up to their homes with violent threats.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in Detroit May 17, 2022 | Ken Coleman

“We need to protect the people who protect our democracy,” Benson said. “This has become a truly unAmerican and unprecedented barrage of threats and harassment to our election officials and their families. As a result, many officials and volunteers who collectively have decades of experience are leaving their positions, unwilling to take further abuse for simply doing their jobs and making elections secure.”

The proposed bill is part of Benson’s legislative priorities for the 2022 midterm elections, which she detailed during a press conference Tuesday. Benson is running for reelection this year and likely faces Republican Kristina Karamo, who has been endorsed by the Michigan GOP, and has spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election former President Donald Trump lost.

Some of the proposals, like allocating more funds to election administration and giving clerks more time to begin processing absentee ballots, are familiar causes that Benson has previously championed. However, it’s not clear if the Legislature will take them up.

Benson renewed her efforts Tuesday to allow clerks to begin processing, but not counting, absentee ballots up to seven days before Election Day, which she says is a national best practice and would allow for quicker results on election night.

“Michigan voters often do not have unofficial results on election night or shortly after the polls close, and have to sometimes wait up to 24 hours after the polls close to give them,” Benson said. “That gives election deniers and other conspiracy theorists time to fill space between when the polls close and when the results are announced with false conspiracy theories that undermine our elections themselves, spread false and confusing theories as to what and why the results will be what they are, and threaten, ultimately, not just our democracy, but our citizens’ faith and their voices and their vote.”

House Bill 5518, sponsored by Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), would give clerks the extra time to begin processing absentee ballots. 

“During the 2020 election, we all remember anxiously waiting for the election results to trickle in. The truth is there is no need for another delay like that,” said Koleszar. “Many states already allow voting administrators to pre-process ballots effectively and securely before Election Day. Votes would still be counted only on Election Day, but this process alleviates the stress on administrators and the suspense of voters by getting the election results sooner.”

There also are several ballot measures circulating regarding elections and voting, including: 

  • Secure MI Vote, backed by Michigan Republicans, would enact voting restrictions like requiring voter IDs without exception, require partial Social Security numbers for voter registration, prohibit unsolicited absentee ballot applications and ban outside funding for elections
  • Promote the Vote 2022, backed by the ACLU of Michigan and Voters Not Politicians, would allow nine days of early voting, require ballot drop-off boxes for every 15,000 voters, require that post-election audits only be conducted by the state and local officials and allow voters to register for absentee ballots for all future elections.
  • Audit MI, backed by Trump supporters, which would conduct a so-called “forensic audit” of the 2020 election. Post-election audits would also no longer be conducted by the secretary of state or local election officials under the statute; instead, it would create an “audit board” of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats selected by the Legislature. The board would be allowed to raise public and private funds and would not be required to disclose their private donors.

Benson said that currently, the state relies too heavily on federal and local governments to fund election administration, calling on the Legislature to provide $100 million annually to local clerks for elections.

Benson also called on lawmakers to pass a bill allowing military families serving overseas to return their ballots electronically.

“Michigan is behind other states in doing this,” Benson said. “That is likely the reason that nearly 25% of military ballots were returned too late to be counted, or not returned at all, in the 2020 presidential election. That is unacceptable. That’s more than 1,600 members of our armed services who are disenfranchised by our antiquated laws. This has to change.”

Both the House of Representatives and Senate passed the legislation in 2020 but never sent the bill to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to be signed.

“A bill should be easy to pass, because the state Legislature has already passed it … in December 2020,” Benson said. “I’m asking now, on behalf of all military service members and their spouses serving overseas, that lawmakers pass this again – and this time, ensure it is delivered to the governor for her signature.”

State Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) has introduced House Bill 5514, which mirrors the legislation previously passed by both chambers of the Legislature.

“Every day, our military personnel put their lives on the line to protect our freedom, including our right to vote. We have a responsibility to make sure they can exercise this right and engage in the democracy they are protecting,” said Kuppa. 

Pro-Trump protesters at Detroit’s TCF Center during the absentee ballot count after the Nov. 4, 2020 election | Ken Coleman

Whitmer also backed the priorities laid out by Benson on Tuesday. 

“Every Michigander deserves to have their voice heard as they exercise their constitutional right to vote in a safe and secure election,” said Whitmer. “Our democracy works when every eligible voter — no matter who they support — has safe, convenient, and secure access to the ballot. Protecting the right to vote is not a political or partisan issue; it is foundational to who we are as Americans. We can work together to protect people’s voices by passing robust voting rights protections. Let’s get this done for the sake of our democracy.”

Benson said the proposals would have a tangible benefit for clerks and voters from both parties.

“We need to take action. Rather than continuing to spread misinformation with legislation and proposals that are in search of nonexistent problems,” Benson said, “it is time for our allies and teammates, I hope, in the Legislature to do the people’s work and pass nonpartisan election policies that serve all voters on both sides of the aisle.”

Michigan’s primary election will be held Aug. 2, followed by the general election on Nov. 8.

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Andrew Roth
Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a former reporting intern with the Michigan Advance. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics for three years across a number of publications and studies journalism at Michigan State University.