Former Mich. election director: Proposal 2 voting reforms are ‘nothing new’ in the U.S.

By: - October 27, 2022 2:56 pm

James Brooks/States Newsroom

Former Michigan Director of Elections Chris Thomas on Thursday discussed potential benefits of Proposal 2, a statewide voting rights constitutional amendment, and detailed how he believes it’s been mischaracterized through misinformation.

“There’s nothing new or novel about this proposal that isn’t being done around the country today. We’ve invented nothing here,” Thomas said during a press conference supporting the measure. 

Thomas currently serves as a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project following a 40-year career in election administration. That includes 36 years as Michigan’s director of elections during which he served under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. Before retiring in 2017, Thomas served under Republican Ruth Johnson, who is now a state senator and opposes Proposal 2.

Proposal 2, also known as the “Promote the Vote” measure, would allow early voting nine days before the election, allow voters to use an ID or signed affidavit as proof of identity and would implement changes that strengthen voting access for military members, overseas personnel and other absentee voters. 

These changes would allow the following:

  • Counting of absentee ballots distributed to military personnel or those living overseas if properly completed and postmarked on or before election day.
  • Placement on a permanent absentee voter list.
  • Prepaid ballot postage and a state-funded ballot tracking notification system.
  • Ensured access to ballot drop boxes.

The proposal is opposed by the Michigan Republican Party. Following former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss, Republicans in Michigan and across the country have proposed legislation that would restrict voting. However, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed most bills. Republicans have their own ballot measure, Secure MI Vote, but they failed to collect enough signatures to get it on the Nov. 8 ballot.

This week, the “Vote No on Proposal 2” committee announced that former GOP secretaries of state — Johnson, Terri Lynn Land and Candice Miller — oppose the ballot measure, claiming that it would increase election fraud.

Sen. Ruth Johnson at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“This is a dangerous proposal,” Johnson said.

Thomas argued that the proposal’s early voting provision would be a great service to voters.

“We know there are a lot of people in the state who do not want to vote by mail, and may not want to wait until Election Day to cast a ballot,” Thomas said. “This as an option provides flexibility to our voters to be able to come and vote early.”

Early voting is already allowed in states including Florida, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, Thomas said.

Allowing early voting could also save money, as absentee voting has a more expensive processing cost, Thomas said. 

Thomas also addressed claims from opponents like Johnson who said that Proposal 2 would eliminate voter ID requirements. Under the state’s current policy, voters must either present a photo ID at the polls on Election Day, or sign an affidavit. 

The proposal would place the current law in the Constitution and does not make showing an ID optional, Thomas said. He said individuals saying this proposal would dramatically change the law are unnecessarily scaring voters. 

“It would not change at all. It would continue a reasonable Michigan approach to voter ID,” Thomas said. 

“Our current system has been in place for 15 years now. I haven’t seen any reports of impersonation fraud under our system,” Thomas said. “Nobody has come forward saying that people are sneaking past the guard and actually have the moxie to show up in person and try to pass themselves off as another individual.”

Thomas also questioned the cost estimates presented by the House and Senate Fiscal Agencies for absentee voting. The Senate Fiscal Agency Estimates return postage for absentee ballots could total $11.2 million.

The cost estimates for mail-in ballots assumes 100% of mail-in voters are returning their ballots through the mail. The real number is closer to 50%, and varies by community, Thomas said.

Miller, Land and Johnson have criticized Proposal 2’s policy allowing voters to apply for permanent absentee voter status due to concerns of security. Thomas said this would not be a large change from the current system, and would assist the state in maintaining clean voter registration files.

Ballots sent out through the mail are can’t be forwarded, so if somebody moves, the ballot is returned to the clerk, triggering a cancelation countdown process, Thomas said. If the mail is returned voters are sent a notice with an opportunity to respond.

Chris Thomas

Additionally, Thomas does not see security issues with this aspect of the proposal. No ballot is counted without the voter’s signature being verified. This is done twice, through the absentee ballot application, and the signature on the ballot envelope. The law also allows election workers to verify the ballot signature based on the application signature, Thomas said.

Thomas also addressed criticism of the proposal’s policy allowing charitable donations to help conduct and administer elections, provided the donations are publicly disclosed and do not originate from foreign funds or sources. 

Thomas also cited the role of charitable contributions in administering the 2020 election during the COVID-19 pandemic as clerks were transitioning to a no-reason absentee ballot system.

“We didn’t get one dime from the Legislature to assist the transition to that new program, not a dime,” Thomas said. “Money came in from many sources, and went to around 500 jurisdictions in Michigan, Republican and Democratic. And they paid for machines, they paid for drop boxes, they paid for supplements to try to encourage people to come out in a pandemic and work in a very public environment.”

“This is a full disclosure operation [which] prohibits any kind of foreign money, and I think would rarely be used other than in some emergency situation, when really the Legislature’s the one should come forward and provide the resources for these clerks to run their elections. And then there would have been no need for outside money,” Thomas said.

Thomas also shared concerns about potential disruptions in the upcoming elections, particularly surrounding a recent Court of Claims decision that would allow cell phones in the absentee voter counting board when election challengers are sequestered. In the past challengers could have their phones, but not use them. 

By allowing challengers to use their phones, the court has made sequestering unenforceable, and opening up concerns about photographs and recordings of people working, Thomas said. 

‘It’s just a full-throttle attack on elections and on democracy in Michigan’

Thomas also serves as an advisor to Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, and testified before the Senate Oversight Committee in 2020 to dispel false claims of fraud during the vote-counting process in Detroit’s former TCF Center. 

“I’m not accusing challengers of threatening workers. But I do believe from the history of 2020 that when those photos get put on social media, people will start tracking them down, figuring out who they are threatening them and their families. This is now standard activity around this country,” Thomas said. 

According to a survey, almost half of Michigan’s local officials have reported threats and abuse, while four out of five election workers have reported increased threats. 

“I’m not too worried about the polling places themselves. … But I think that, given the climate, when people say they’re going to do things, we need to take that seriously,” Thomas said.

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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson is a reporting intern for the Michigan Advance. A recent MSU graduate, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He has reported on community events, breaking news, state policy, and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.

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