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One in every five polling places could be gone under a new Michigan voting plan. That concerns local clerks. 

DELTA TWP., Mich.—Mary Clark said she can’t sleep some nights. The Delta Township clerk keeps herself up thinking of where she’d need to place the thousands of registered voters in upcoming elections if a large number of churches and similar polling locations are banned—a consequence of Michigan Republicans’ pushing new restrictive voting measures. 

“I have no place to move them,” Clark said, referring to voters who would be displaced if places of worship were no longer able to be donated.

Delta Township, a community of more than 35,000 in Michigan’s Eaton County, has 16 precincts, with 12 of them located in 10 places of worship. Other precincts use township buildings as polling places. 

Clark is referring to the Secure MI Vote initiative. At face value, Republicans tout it as a proposal to require voters to show an identification card or social security number in order to vote. But Clark’s concerns are the small print found in the initiative that would change voting for tens of thousands of rural residents: banning voting at churches and other religious buildings. 

“People have fought wars for us to be able to have the right to vote, and now energy is being diverted on protecting that right to vote for people who have always had that right to vote and should have that right to vote,” said Clark, who also serves as the president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. She also was recognized in 2020 as the Michigan Municipal Clerk of the Year. 

“It’s alarming and it’s frustrating and it’s scary.”

In Michigan, residents can revise and repeal laws by getting enough signatures from registered voters. For the Secure MI Vote initiative, 340,000 signatures are required to send the proposal to legislators. It’s unclear how many signatures the initiative has received. 

The Dangerous Fine Print of a New Voting Measure 

Secure MI Vote includes rules that would forbid some donations to clerk’s offices, such as some locations used as polling places. Instead, those spaces would need to be purchased for “fair market value,” Clark said, a number she estimates would be thousands of dollars. 

“There’s so many things that we would like to positively see happen in election law that we’ve attempted to work with the House and the Senate on and this is putting a whole other issue that we have to deal with and worry about,” she said, referring to potential voting reforms. 

The Secure MI Vote initiative is really just a new variation of a series of bills already rejected by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Those bills—which would have required voter IDs, barred election workers from accepting donations and would’ve prevented the Michigan Secretary of State’s office from giving out absentee ballot applications unless a voter requested one. 

The difference this time around is that the initiative will be able to go before those lawmakers without Whitmer’s approval. 

“There was vocal opposition to the provisions that are within the Secure MI Vote proposal from clerks, civil rights organizations, election rights advocates,” said Sam Inglot, the Deputy Director with Progress Michigan, a Michigan-centric advocacy group. 

The group often advocates for expanded voter accessibility, standing up for disenfranchised voters in Michigan, and they’re not alone. Several activist and voting groups have come out against the Secure MI Vote initiative, including the ACLU of Michigan, the Michigan Alliance for Retired Americans, and All Voting is Local Michigan. 

“So, we’ve seen these policies sort of on the drawing board for a while now, and since their inception there was widespread opposition to them,” Inglot said. “But that apparently didn’t change the hearts or minds of the folks behind this petition.”

Clark said, who said there is a “growing panic” in the local clerk community about the financial amendments included in the proposal. 

“You have to understand, everything about elections is proportional,” Clark said. “So, a huge jurisdiction that has a bigger budget is going to have a bigger hit. A small jurisdiction that has a minimal budget is going to be hit equally hard, if not harder.”

The Cost of Voting, According to Michigan Republicans 

One in every five Michigan polling places in the 2020 election were churches or other places of worship. Five counties in Michigan used places of worship for more than 40% of their polling locations, while 15 counties used them for more than 20% of their polling places, according to Progress Michigan. 

If the Secure MI Vote initiative were to go through, half of Michigan’s counties would lose polling places, according to the Progress Michigan report

“It’s clear that this ban on donated polling location space from places of worship will cause confusion and disruption for voters leading to voter disenfranchisement, create challenges for clerks who would have to find new polling place locations or reduce the number of polling places available and increase costs for election administration,” Inglot said. 

Delta Township would still be able to use churches as polling places, sure, but it would now cost them money, Clark explained. She said election set-up usually takes one day, another for the day of the election, and then a third day if used for tear down. 

“Going market rate is, for me, adds up to a lot of money,” she said. 

And some solutions that may seem simple aren’t, Clark said: For example, precincts are capped by a law to no more than 2,999 registered voters. So, clerks can’t simply take a handful of precincts and try to shove them into one township building they can use for free, she explained. 

“It doesn’t work that way,” Clark said. “It’s very paralyzing. And as I said before, it’s starting to have roots of panic about how we are going to manage this.”