A judge for the 3rd District of the Michigan Court of Appeals dealt Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson a significant setback in a ruling published Wednesday.

Judge Christopher P. Yates ruled that guidelines issued by Benson regarding verification of signatures on absentee ballots violated the Michigan Constitution. Benson’s guidance included the phrase, “[v]oter signatures are entitled to an initial presumption of validity.”

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Yates disagreed, and, as part of his ruling, mandated strict adherence to signature verifications in the 2024 elections.

“The Secretary of State and the Director of Elections possess powers and duties concerning election procedures, but their powers do not extend to the promulgation of rules that conflict with the Michigan Constitution or statutes enacted by our Legislature,” Yates wrote.

Yates was appointed to the Court of Claims in 2022 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to replace Judge Jane Beckering.

“Secretary of State Benson cannot pick and choose which elections laws to enforce and which to ignore,” Michigan Republican Party Chairman Pete Hoekstra said in a statement. “The signatures of absentee ballot voters have to and should be verified – it’s common sense. Michigan is crucial to the pathway to victory in November. We must protect and enforce all our election laws to maintain confidence in our system.”

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At issue was Benson’s “initial presumption of validity” guidance for clerks tabulating mail-in ballots, which was challenged by plaintiffs that included the Republican National Committee, the Michigan Republican Party, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Chesterfield Township Clerk Cindy Berry.

Yates continued his takedown of Benson’s guidance with a cheeky literary allusion to American Modernist writer Gertrude Stein and a reference to the recent WNBA incident involving Chicago Skye guard Chennedy Carter’s blatant foul of Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark.

“In response to the plaintiffs’ reliance upon the pellucid statutory language, the defendants take the position that the guidance manual does not prescribe a presumption,” Yates wrote. “Instead, it calls for a more modest ‘initial presumption.’ With apologies to Gertrude Stein, however, a presumption is a presumption is a presumption. Whether the guidance manual includes a gentle nudge instead of a hip check, it’s still a foul under Michigan law.”

Yates continued: “Indeed, the defendants’ decision to initially insert, but later withdraw, the presumption language in Rule 2 speaks volumes about their understanding of what Michigan law will – and will not- allow. Accordingly, the Court shall award a declaratory judgment describing as impermissible all presumption language contained in the guidance manual for dealing with absentee-ballot applications and envelopes.”

Yates drew upon the specific circumstances faced by plaintiff Berry, whom Benson’s attorneys attempted to declare without standing in the case. Yates disagreed, citing a similar previous case where Benson’s attorneys did not challenge the standing of an Allegan County clerk, which had they done so would have been “fatuous” in similar fashion to Benson’s genuinely challenging Berry’s standing as a plaintiff.

“Both the guidance manual issued by the Secretary of State in December 2023 and Rule 4 furnish instructions to clerks such as Cindy Berry, who must verify voters’ signatures on absentee-ballot applications and envelopes. The Court cannot imagine anyone more in need of a ruling in the form of a declaratory judgment on the guidance manual and Rule 4 than a local clerk like Cindy Berry.”

He continued: “Indeed, if she does not have standing to seek declaratory relief as a clerk, then nobody has standing to challenge the guidance manual and Rule 4. The Court of Claims previously took up a challenge to similar guidance in Genetski, a case brought by the Allegan County Clerk. There, the Secretary of State did not challenge the clerk’s standing, presumably because such a challenge would have been fatuous. The same can be said of the defendants’ objection to Cindy Berry’s standing in this case. Consequently, the Court denies the defendants’ request for summary disposition based on a purported lack of standing. This case must be decided on the merits.”