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Judge rules Michigan's Democratic secretary of state broke law with absentee ballot rule

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Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson instructed clerks to presume the accuracy of signatures on absentee ballots

Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A Michigan judge ruled last week that Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson violated state law by unilaterally altering absentee voting rules ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

At issue is a now-invalidated directive Benson issued to Michigan clerks in October relating to the signature review of absentee ballots. In the guidance, the secretary of state reportedly directed clerks to conduct the signature review "begin[ning] with the presumption that" the signature on the absentee is valid.

The directive went on to say that if there were "any redeeming qualities in the application or return envelope signature as compared to the signature on file," clerks should "treat the signature as valid." Such "redeeming qualities" allegedly included "similar distinctive flourishes" and "more matching features than nonmatching features."

But that "presumption is found nowhere in state law," State Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray wrote in his ruling, issued March 9. "The mandatory presumption goes beyond the realm of mere advice and direction, and instead is a substantive directive that adds to the pertinent signature-matching standards."

Additionally, the judge found that Benson did not follow the state's proper rule-making process, but instead circumvented the state legislature in issuing the guidance, and thus violated the state's Administrative Procedures Act.

"The guidance issued by the Secretary of State on October 6, 2020, with respect to signature-matching standards was issued in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act," Murray wrote in conclusion.

According to the Detroit News, the Michigan Republican Party, one of the plaintiffs in the case, celebrated the judge's decision but lamented that it ultimately came too late to bear any influence on the presidential election.

"It was clear from the outset that the secretary of state had violated Election Law by unilaterally directing local clerks to ignore their statutory obligation to compare absentee ballot signatures," said Ted Goodman, the state GOP's communications director.

The ruling appears to vindicate complaints made by many Republican lawmakers and former President Donald Trump's campaign that Democratic secretaries of state violated their states' own election in the lead-up to the election.

But in his ruling, Murray stopped short of granting approval for additional audits to look at the effect the directive had on the November election.

"There is no support in the statute for plaintiffs to demand that an audit cover the subject of their choosing or to dictate the manner in which an audit is conducted," the judge wrote.

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