Michigan reinstates voters amid right-wing scheme to challenge voter registrations

Photo Illustration/Kimberly White & Win McNamee/Getty Images

By Kyle Kaminski

March 7, 2024

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is urging clerks not to fall prey to a right-wing scheme that seeks to cancel thousands of voter registrations nationwide—including in Michigan.

MICHIGAN—Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is working to reinstate the voter registrations of more than 1,100 people after right-wing operatives and allies of ex-President Donald Trump quietly pressured local election clerks in Michigan to cancel hundreds of voter registrations. 

According to the New York Times, right-wing activists guised as “election investigators” have pressured city and township clerks across the country to drop voters from their rolls en masse ahead of the presidential election—including a since-foiled scheme that sought to improperly nullify the voter registrations of more than 1,100 voters in Genoa and Waterford townships. 

At a press conference on Wednesday, Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater confirmed that both state and local officials are “in the process” of reinstating more than 1,100 people who had their registrations improperly canceled as a result of the recent challenges.

“The priority for the Bureau of Elections is making sure the election law is followed,” Brater said. “Whatever the motivation is of somebody who is making one of these challenges, we want to make sure that no voter gets canceled unless they’re getting the legally entitled process.”

State officials said they are unaware of any large voter registration challenges outside of the two townships—but they will still keep an eye out for “unusual” activity that results from the ongoing, right-wing scheme to purge Democratic voters from voter rolls in Michigan.

“Any effort to improperly challenge voter registrations in Michigan and other states is a coordinated attack against democracy and an active attempt to disenfranchise voters,” Cheri Hardmon, a spokesperson for Benson’s office, told The ‘Gander in a statement this week.

Here’s the deal:

Local and state elections officials use a variety of methods to identify voters who have died or are otherwise ineligible to vote and cancel their voter registrations—including driver’s licenses changes and change-of-address notices that are filed with the United States Postal Service. 

Under federal law, clerks are required to keep voters on the rolls for two election cycles before fully canceling their registrations—even if they’ve received information that the voter has moved.

State officials said that waiting period is required because sometimes initial information suggesting that someone has moved does not mean they have actually changed their voting residency—including those who changed their address for school, work, or military service.

As a result, more than 532,000 inactive voter registrations are stuck in that waiting period and slated for cancellation in 2025, with another 94,000 registrations set to be canceled in 2027.

‘Get these people off the rolls’

A bombshell report published on Sunday by the New York Times first exposed a targeted, right-wing plot to expedite that cancellation schedule ahead of the 2024 presidential election—including a failed scheme to cancel registrations in Genoa and Waterford townships.

The activists are reportedly part of an expansive web of grassroots groups that formed after Trump tried to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election. Among their top priorities this year: Orchestrating mass challenges to voter registrations, largely in Democratic areas, based on the unfounded theory that Democrats are rigging elections in favor of their preferred candidates.

Their theory, however, has no grounding in fact

Investigations into voter fraud have found that it is exceedingly rare and that when it occurs, it is typically isolated or even accidental. Election officials have also said there is no reason to suspect that the systems for keeping voter lists up-to-date are failing.

Just last week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Benson’s office that alleged officials were allowing thousands of dead voters to remain on the voter rolls, finding that Michigan is “consistently among the most active states” in canceling the registration of dead voters.

“The tactics used by activists to pressure clerks to remove large numbers of voters—claiming they are breaking the law if they do not comply with their demands—are based on false premises and seek to undermine voters’ faith in our electoral system,” Hardmon said. “Staff in the Michigan Department of State’s Bureau of Elections and clerks are very active in maintaining voter rolls in Michigan and our state’s Qualified Voter File is constantly updated.”

Still, in Waterford Township, more than 1,000 voters had their registrations canceled this year after a right-wing activist presented Clerk Kimberly Markee with a list of names pulled from a US Postal Service mail-forwarding list, and claimed they were no longer eligible to vote.

“We need to get these people off the rolls before the 2024 election,” an unidentified activist wrote in a letter to Markee, which was provided to the New York Times with redactions.

And in Genoa Township, another local election clerk improperly removed about 120 people from the voting rolls in response to a similar request from a challenger this year, the Times reports.

Among those who had their voter registration canceled in the purge was a Michigander serving in the US Air Force, who could still vote in Michigan despite being stationed in Illinois, the New York Times reports. That voter, among others, has since had their registrations reinstated.

Caution for clerks 

The purge in Waterford reportedly went unnoticed by state officials until The New York Times discovered it last month. Benson’s office has since instructed the local clerks to reinstate the voters who were targeted, saying their removal didn’t follow the process in state and federal law.

Benson’s office also cautioned local clerks that the “mere presence on a USPS list” does not disqualify someone from being registered to vote.

Benson also reissued guidance for how clerks can properly remove ineligible voters from the rolls—including how they must legally wait two election cycles before canceling a voter’s registration, unless a voter personally confirms that they’ve moved out of the voting jurisdiction.

At this week’s press conference, Brater described the legal mechanism used to challenge voter registrations as an “old-fashioned” and uncommon way of maintaining voter rolls—namely because election officials already rely on a trove of records and databases to maintain their files.

“This is not a brand new thing. It was happening sporadically the last couple years, but it seems to have cropped up more recently,” Brader said. “Frankly, we have much more modern ways of maintaining the voter files now, which have been added to the election law since the 1990s.”

Although the recent challenges to voter registrations in Michigan are uncommon and rely on an obscure law from the 1950s, they’re still perfectly legal. But Brater said clerks must still follow state and federal law—including the mandatory waiting period—before they cancel registrations.

Brater also said that many of the names submitted for challenges may already be included in the 600,000 voter registrations that are already set to be canceled over the next two years. And despite the recent efforts to boot them from the rolls, they won’t drop off until 2025 or 2027.

“That statute is still on the books. The problem is that in some cases, we’re seeing people try to do challenges that don’t really meet the statutory requirements for a valid challenge,” Brater said on Wednesday. “They’re trying to present a challenge that would result in cancellation sooner.”

It’s difficult to know exactly how many voters have been dropped from the rolls as a result of the right-wing campaign to cancel voter registrations, according to the New York Times. Brater said he wasn’t aware of similar challenges in Michigan beyond Waterford and Genoa Township. 

“There may be others though,” Brater cautioned. 

A New York Times review of the recent voter registration challenges in swing states—which reportedly included public records, interviews, and audio records—suggested the right-wing activists were rarely as effective in removing voters from the rolls as they were in Waterford. 

READ MORE: Rough 3 years for Michiganders who tried to overturn 2020 election

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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