Michigan Judge Largely Denies RNC’s Challenge To Absentee Ballot Signature Matching Rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Michigan judge today largely rejected the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) bid to tighten the state’s instructions for verifying signatures on absentee ballot applications and return envelopes ahead of the 2024 election. 

As a result of today’s ruling, election officials in the consequential battleground state may continue to apply most of the current signature matching rules promulgated by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D). Election officials cannot, however, utilize a slightly more lenient standard contained in the state’s guidance — known as a “presumption of validity” — when verifying signatures, the judge concluded. 

The RNC has not yet indicated whether it plans to appeal today’s ruling. 

Under Benson’s guidance and Michigan law, election officials are required to compare signatures on absentee ballot applications and return envelopes to those contained in voter files. If an election official rejects a ballot with an insufficiently matching or missing signature, a voter is then given an opportunity to remedy the signature deficiency. 

In a lawsuit filed in late March the RNC, Michigan Republican Party, National Republican Congressional Committee and individuals alleged that Benson’s 2023 signature matching guidance impermissibly permitted election officials to apply a “presumption of validity” during the signature verification process. 

On the contrary, Benson and state’s director of elections maintained that the state’s 2023 guidance “explicitly states that signatures are not ‘presumed valid’ without further review.” 

Nevertheless, Judge Christopher P. Yates in today’s ruling partially agreed with the RNC and its co-plaintiffs, holding that “an initial presumption of validity is impermissible under the Michigan Constitution and Michigan statutes.” Yates reasoned that “our Constitution calls for a signature comparison without making any presumption for or against validity.”

But Yates rejected the RNC’s more sweeping arguments against Benson’s signature matching rules that — if accepted by the court — had the potential to increase unnecessary ballot rejections.

In particular, Yates upheld Benson’s instructions that allow election officials to consider many possible explanations for possible signature discrepancies — such as the possibility that a voter’s signature may have changed slightly over time due to age or disability. 

According to the GOP lawsuit, the instructions enable “election officials to approve an [absentee] voter’s signature based on mere speculation.” Yates, on the other hand, wrote in today’s order that Michigan law “requires a generous approach to verification of voters’ signatures.” 

He continued that Benson’s guidance does nothing more than list “five commonsense reasons for differences in signatures” that are “consistent with the generous approach to signature verification that our Legislature has prescribed.”

In an amicus brief in support of Benson, the Democratic National Committee described the RNC’s legal challenge as “an obvious collateral attack on election administration generally, intended to undermine confidence in elections and designed to sow doubt about the outcome of the 2024 presidential contest.”

Nonprofit groups in a separate amicus brief referred to the lawsuit as “just another in a long line of meritless attempts by Republican Party groups since the 2020 election to undermine these efforts and make voting harder.”

The RNC is currently behind seven active election-related lawsuits, including two others in Michigan concerning the state’s maintenance of its voter rolls and regulations on partisan election challengers. 

Read the ruling here.

Learn more about the case here.