Republicans tell Benson they’re worried rural voters will be left behind with redistricting panel

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announces details of Michigan's new Independent Citizen's Redistricting Commission on Oct. 24, 2019 | Claire Moore

Measures adopted last year by citizens have already improved voter turnout, according to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. 

Benson testified before the state Senate Elections Committee on Wednesday about both Proposals 2 and 3, saying that they will create greater citizen participation in government.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson testifies before a Senate panel, Oct. 30, 2019 | Anna Liz Nichols

Proposal 2 transfers the power to draw state congressional and legislative districts from the Legislature to a 13-member independent commission of four Democrats, four Republicans and five people with no party affiliation.

Proposal 3 is meant to make voting a simpler process. Citizens can now register to vote the day of an election, be registered to vote automatically when registering for a driver license or personal ID card, not have to give a reason to receive an absentee ballot and more.

Benson testified that the proposals invite individuals to become a part of their democracy. The Democrat said both she and senators have a duty to reach out to their constituents to educate and empower them to use their voice in government.

“An invitation, whether it’s an invitation to run for office or to vote or participate in this, is often what is needed for citizens to feel that they have a voice and should have a seat at the table. And you really can be that ambassador to your constituents and to others,” Benson said.

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Individuals, thanks to the accommodations in Proposal 3, are already pulling up their chairs, according to Benson. The measure changed state law from allowing citizens to register to vote up to 30 days prior to an election to up to the day of the election now. 

Voters took advantage of the new policy in the May 2019 election and 568 people registered to vote within 14 days of the election. More than half of those individuals were 18 or 19 years old.

Benson said young people, more than any other group of voters, are benefitting from the new voting rules. In the August 2019 election, 698 citizens registered to vote within 14 days of the election. About half were younger than 30.

Senators on the committee commended Benson for her efforts in working with clerks to prepare to process voter registrations under the new rules, but a few expressed concerns for citizens in rural communities.

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State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who represents the Upper Peninsula, took issue with the 13-person redistricting commission. The panel is required to be composed of a diverse group of people, from different geographic areas, but McBroom is worried the Upper Peninsula won’t get a chance to be represented.

Sen. Ed McBroom speaks on the floor of the state Senate | Nick Manes

Benson said people have to apply to be on the commission, a process that is now open. She said if lawmakers encourage those from their districts to apply, there is a greater chance someone from a specific area will be included.

Smaller districts and rural areas may be left unprepared for the influx of new voters, state Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) said. Outdated equipment and lack of internet access could hinder the ability for officials to meet the new needs of voters.

Needs assessments and open communication is the name of the game, Benson responded. Through her communications with clerks, Benson said often the No. 1 need for offices is an additional staff person for elections, which is a request that can be filled.

Benson outlines online application process, gives timeline for redistricting commission member selection

“My ear is close to the ground for all of our jurisdictions,” Benson said.

During her testimony, Benson mentioned she had either recently visited or has plans to visit several areas in the Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula to talk to local clerks. Senators on the committee who expressed concern for their constituents were met with an “I will be there at this date” and “We can plan a meeting at this date” from Benson. 

“I can’t emphasize enough how much your partnership means to all of this. You have constituents that look to you as leaders in your community constituents who supported this amendment and regardless of anyone’s position on the amendment enactment, it  is the rule of the law now and we all must ensure its success,” Benson said.