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Report: Election reform proposal would eliminate 20% of Michigan's polling places

The Secure MI Vote initiative's ban on donations would apply to churches and other private facilities currently in use as polling places.

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. — An election reform push here in Michigan could redefine your trip to the ballot box.

One potential change in particular has prompted county clerks to speak out with regard to the implications, which may involve surprising side effects for Michigan churches.

The Secure MI Vote ballot initiative, clerks said, may make it more difficult to find polling places, many of which are donated by civically-minded private entities, including religious groups and congregations.

The last provision contained within the petition language clearly states the initiative would "prohibit donations to fund elections."

“We wanted to look into some of the different provisions within the proposed changes and see how they could impact election administration,” Sam Inglot, deputy director of advocacy group Progress Michigan said.

A top-down look by Progress Michigan revealed a full one in five or roughly 20% of the state's polling places would be disqualified under a ban imposed on so-called in-kind contributions.

“We could see the cost of simply obtaining a polling place increased by thousands of dollars,” Inglot relayed. “Clerks cannot apply for grants…This is creating problems out of thin air.”

“It's certainly going to be a significant resource challenge for our communities,” Justin Roebuck said via Zoom late last week.

Ottawa County Clerk Roebuck told 13 On Your Side the county relied heavily on private, mostly donated spaces after moving out of local schools on account of security concerns several years ago.

A whopping 60% of those hubs from Georgetown Township to Holland to Grand Haven were churches in 2020, according to a publicly available registry on the county’s website.

Several other local counties secured spots on Progress Michigan’s list of those most affected in the event of its passage:

  • Kent County: 49.7%
  • Kalamazoo County: 49.4%

“One of my concerns… while it limits the resources available to election officials, it does not provide adequate funding,” Roebuck said. “The scope of this is way more broad than… hopefully was intended in terms of removing that element of communities simply just supporting one another.”

Experts have also shared concerns the initiative could, in effect, ban volunteer activities.

A Secure MI Vote spokesman told the Detroit Free Press that was not its intent, though experts caution the petition’s broad nature means any questions unanswered by the petition language itself would be left to the state legislature and later, the judiciary to interpret.

The initiative appeared to have been assembled using pieces of other reform-minded legislation.

Senate Bill 0284 specifically mentioned a ban on in-kind contributions.

That bill was sponsored by State Senator Curt VanderWall.

The republican lawmaker told 13 On Your Side that, in hindsight, given the report’s findings, he would be open to changes.

Churches and small-scale inter-community donations, he said, were not deliberate targets of the effort.

“The number one thing is making sure we have the proper amount of locations,” VanderWall explained. “We're going to have to look at some of that. If we need to tweak some of that language, I'm open to that. It's certainly not our intention to limit opportunities.”

While VanderWall said Michigan’s polling places were an unintended target, he said the effort aimed to do away with multimillion dollar gifts from private donors intended to facilitate elections on either side of the aisle.

He appeared to reference Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s more than $300 million dollar gift to support such efforts during the 2020 election cycle, though research conducted by Bridge Magazine suggested the money had been distributed fairly.

The petition’s circulators recently initiated the process of collecting voter signatures.

If Secure MI Vote receives 340,000 valid signatures ahead of its deadline, the GOP-led effort would likely be adopted by the state legislature, instead of consideration via a statewide vote.

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