Experts say Michigan law ‘has the back’ of election workers and voters

A new analysis finds both federal and Michigan law offer ample protections against bullying at the polls.

A "Vote Here" sign outside a voting location in Michigan on Election Day 2023.

A "Vote Here" sign outside a voting location in Michigan on Election Day 2023.

Experts say election workers and even voters face an almost unprecedented amount of tactics designed to intimidate them.

A recent poll from Bloomberg/Morning Consult found that roughly 50% of registered voters across a group of swing-states — including Michigan — aren’t confident the election and its aftermath will be free from violence.

But a new analysis finds both federal and Michigan law offer ample protections against bullying at the polls.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law studied voters’ rights in political battleground states including Michigan.

Senior Counsel Eliza Sweren-Becker says anyone encountering trouble at the ballot box has many options available to defend themselves.

Listen: Experts say Michigan law ‘has the back’ of election workers and voters

The following interview was edited for clarity.

Eliza Sweren-Becker, Brennan Center for Justice: Federal law sets a floor preventing and prohibiting intimidation of voters and election officials. And those laws are quite strong. They’ve been on the books for a long time and they’ve been enforced for many, many years. The states can go above and beyond that floor to protect voters against intimidation. And they do, in fact, do that. The laws that are specific to Michigan are really complimentary and consistent with the existing federal laws. They’re enforced by different prosecutors as opposed to U.S. attorneys and employees of the U.S. Department of Justice. The laws in Michigan also go to some of the more specific election-related issues that may be occurring in Michigan. For example, Michigan law places a number of guardrails around voter challenges. And that’s something that federal law doesn’t get deeply in the weeds of. But Michigan law constrains them in a number of different ways.

Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: There was a controversy at the central Detroit location where they counted votes in the last presidential election. Officials moved some observers out, they complained that they were getting in the way of counting votes, more or less. And those poll watchers claimed that they were being sent out of the area so that they would not see any fraud being committed. What do you suggest either the poll watchers or the workers do in such a situation?

ES: Not knowing the specifics, if those who were present at the vote-counting site were intimidating the election workers or disrupting the election processes, then the election officials and workers were appropriately removing folks. Election observers remained at that vote-counting site and nothing inappropriate happened as a result of those removals. The thing that was inappropriate was the disruptive and intimidating conduct.

QK: Are there any differences in Michigan’s voter intimidation laws as opposed to other states that surprise you in any way?

ES: The protections against intimidating election officials in Michigan, for example, are quite specific. And that’s an issue that we’ve seen come up in Michigan in recent years. And so, the law affords particular protections for election workers and officials explicitly in the Michigan code. And while it’s true that every election worker and poll worker is protected against intimidation, the level of specificity may differ in certain states. It’s a clear and strong protection for election officials and election workers in Michigan.

QK: That’s certainly become an issue in Michigan, as many election workers have talked about fear over their safety, not just during election day or when they are counting votes, but they oftentimes get threatening voicemails or other things directed at them even after a certain candidate has lost. Are there steps that can be taken either during the actual vote counting if intimidation occurs, or something else that election workers can do nowadays, compared to the past, if it happens before or after election day?

ES: If there are issues that are occurring at a polling place, for example, intimidation by a poll watcher or a challenger, poll workers in Michigan have the authority to remove that disruptive or intimidating poll watcher or challenger from the voting premises. So it’s not just a remedy after the fact. But if there’s instances of misconduct, as they’re occurring poll workers have the power to stop that in its tracks.

QK: If something develops that’s of concern on election day itself, a lot of times you’ll hear major political parties say, “We have attorneys at the ready.” And they say they’ll go to court to make sure that this or that is addressed in some way. For the various workers or voters, for that matter, who might be waiting to cast their vote or in the midst of doing so, what would you suggest they try to do? Especially if they don’t seem to have a group of attorneys at the ready. Are there particular ways that they should protest that they feel like they are being intimidated, or particular officials they should protest that to?

ES: Yes. If somebody is going to the courthouse to vindicate voting access and voting rights, typically the remedy they might get is, for example, an extension of polling place hours to ensure that voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots and any disruption that may have taken place doesn’t infringe on the number of hours that voters are entitled to be able to vote on election day. But in the moment of intimidating or disruptive conduct, the first thing I’d recommend is that a voter alert an election worker to that conduct. Those workers, again, have the authority to maintain order within the polling place. And voters can also call a nonpartisan election protection hotline if they are observing anything that they think is out of the ordinary, that is disruptive, that is intimidating. That is a way to pass along those concerns and complaints. And it could enable that person or set of voters to actually get representation if needed, because nonpartisan lawyers participate in that election protection hotline to make sure that every vote cast counts on election day. That number for election protection is (866) “OUR-VOTE.” There are strong existing state laws and federal laws — including state laws in Michigan — that protect voters from intimidation, election interference and disruption. And laws that likewise protect election officials and election workers. So while it’s something that we are watching very closely, voters and election officials should know that the law has their back.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.