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Michigan Election Inspectors: Rules and Constraints

Guardrails to ensure that election inspectors cannot disrupt election processes.

Last Updated: August 2, 2022
Published: June 23, 2022

Elec­tion inspect­ors (Michigan’s legal term for poll work­ers) play an essen­tial role in Michigan elec­tions. They perform elec­tion duties ranging from processing voters and absentee ballots to secur­ing voting equip­ment and publish­ing results. foot­note1_exnpulo 1 Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 168.674, 168.677, 168.678, 168.679, 168.682 (1954).  In recent years, Michigan — like other states across the coun­try — has grappled with ongo­ing elec­tion inspector short­ages. For elec­tions to func­tion well, it is crit­ical that govern­ment offi­cials recruit a suffi­cient number of qual­i­fied indi­vidu­als from all polit­ical parties to serve as elec­tion inspect­ors. It is equally crit­ical, however, that these inspect­ors perform their duties impar­tially, follow the law, and not disrupt or inter­fere with voting and elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.

Recent press reports indic­ate that indi­vidu­als who promote false­hoods about Michigan’s elec­tion processes are being recruited as elec­tion inspect­ors. Some are outright encour­aging prospect­ive elec­tion inspect­ors to engage in improper conduct by, for example, tamper­ing with elec­tion equip­ment or other­wise inter­fer­ing with elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. To be clear, it would be inap­pro­pri­ate to exclude elec­tion inspect­ors based on their polit­ical beliefs. What is equally clear, however, is that state and local offi­cials should take reas­on­able steps to ensure that applic­ants are will­ing to and do, in fact, follow the law and lawful instruc­tions from elec­tion offi­cials.

Michigan, like other states, already has many guard­rails in place to prevent those who seek to under­mine elec­tions from qual­i­fy­ing as elec­tion inspect­ors and stop indi­vidual elec­tion inspect­ors from disrupt­ing elec­tion processes. Indeed, Michigan elec­tion offi­cials have long managed elec­tion inspect­ors and developed best prac­tices to keep polling places running smoothly on Elec­tion Day. Below is a list of exist­ing legal and proced­ural safe­guards to prevent elec­tion inspector disrup­tions, along with further actions elec­tion offi­cials can take.

Legal Constraints on Elec­tion Inspect­ors

Eligib­il­ity

All applic­ants, includ­ing polit­ical party nomin­ees, must submit full and accur­ate inform­a­tion. State law allows prospect­ive elec­tion inspect­ors to seek appoint­ment in one of two ways: direct applic­a­tion to a city or town­ship clerk or through nomin­a­tion by the chair of a county’s polit­ical party. foot­note2_7edwj2k 2 Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 168.673a, 168.677 (1954).  Each method requires a formal writ­ten applic­a­tion and ulti­mate approval from the city or town­ship board of elec­tion commis­sion­ers. foot­note3_ed90446 3 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.674 (1954).  By stat­ute, each applic­a­tion must include the applic­ant’s name, address, precinct regis­tra­tion, date of birth, polit­ical party affil­i­ation, educa­tion, employ­ment, and other exper­i­ence qual­i­fic­a­tions (e.g., previ­ous elec­tion inspector exper­i­ence). foot­note4_52sdlt6 4 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.677 (1954).  Any false state­ments made on the applic­a­tion will disqual­ify the applic­ant. foot­note5_7uy2p0t 5 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.674 (1954). See also, e.g., State of Michigan Elec­tion Inspector Applic­a­tion, last updated Aug. 2017, https://www.michigan.gov/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/01vander­roest/Elec_Inspe­cAppl.pdf?rev=2721ceb­de7534b7f­b2d66c9671d543c7.

Applic­ants must be will­ing to follow applic­able laws and proced­ures. Before taking office, Michigan law requires that all prospect­ive elec­tion inspect­ors take an oath to ‘“support the consti­tu­tion of the United States and the consti­tu­tion of [Michigan], and . . . faith­fully discharge the duties of the office of inspector of elec­tions accord­ing to the best of [their] abil­ity.’” foot­note6_kdkxtzq 6 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.680 (1954).  Pursu­ant to this oath, clerks may refuse to appoint applic­ants who demon­strate an unwill­ing­ness to follow applic­able laws and instruc­tions. Clerks, of course, cannot turn away applic­ants solely on the basis of their polit­ical view­points or beliefs.

Applic­ants must meet certain eligib­il­ity require­ments under Michigan law. State law prohib­its indi­vidu­als from serving as elec­tion inspect­ors if any member of their imme­di­ate family is a candid­ate for nomin­a­tion or elec­tion to any office in the elec­tion at issue or if they have been convicted of an elec­tion crime or felony. foot­note7_djj3b8i 7 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.677 (1954).  Indi­vidu­als are further prohib­ited from serving as an elec­tion inspector if they misrep­res­ent their polit­ical party pref­er­ence. foot­note8_djcamyk 8 Id.  Each precinct must have a desig­nated chair­per­son and at least two addi­tional elec­tion inspect­ors. foot­note9_uws3tpt 9 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.674 (1954).  At least one elec­tion inspector must be from each major polit­ical party, to the extent that qual­i­fied applic­ants exist. foot­note10_39xldz3 10 Id. See also, e.g., White v. High­land Park Elec­tion Comm., 312 Mich. App. 571 (2015).

Chain of Command

Elec­tion inspect­ors must answer only to their desig­nated elec­tion offi­cials. “Elec­tion inspect­ors are employ­ees of the clerk of the city or town­ship in which the elec­tion inspector is employed.” foot­note11_df3wpuh 11 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, “Author­ity of City and Town­ship Clerks Over Elec­tion Inspect­ors,” June 2022, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/Elec­tion-Admin­is­trat­ors/Clerk-Author­ity-Over-Elec­tion-Inspect­ors.pdf?rev=32dc06a9b2224745a153c9e3a6d10221&hash=2D4E2F9C56CF3CF1962B­F24B934777F5.  They serve in an impar­tial role and must answer to their city or town­ship clerk rather than to their polit­ical party or any party offi­cial. foot­note12_f89c78h 12 Id.; Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.682 (1954) (explain­ing inspector employ­ment and compens­a­tion struc­ture); Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 13: Appoint­ing and Train­ing Elec­tion Inspect­ors, last updated Feb. 2019. See also Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, “Managing Your Precinct on Elec­tion Day: Elec­tion Inspect­ors’ Proced­ure Manual,” Jan. 29, 2020, https://www.michigan.gov/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/03mc­alpine/Managing_Your_Precinct_on_Elec­tion_Day.pdf?rev=667ec9b4d­ab64b27893b8d1f4d5385d4.  An elec­tion inspector who fails to follow the direc­tions of their city or town­ship clerk may be dismissed by that clerk. foot­note13_q7pakdg 13 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, “Author­ity of City and Town­ship Clerks Over Elec­tion Inspect­ors,” June 2022, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/Elec­tion-Admin­is­trat­ors/Clerk-Author­ity-Over-Elec­tion-Inspect­ors.pdf?rev=32dc06a9b2224745a153c9e3a6d10221&hash=2D4E2F9C56CF3CF1962B­F24B934777F5.

Follow­ing Applic­able Laws

Elec­tion inspect­ors are further constrained by their duty to follow applic­able local, state, and federal laws; fail­ure to do so viol­ates their oath of office and warrants removal. foot­note14_ned4z73 14 Id.; Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.680 (1954).  These applic­able laws include, for example, the follow­ing constraints:

Elec­tion inspect­ors may not intim­id­ate or harass voters. Federal and state laws prohibit actual or attemp­ted intim­id­a­tion, threats, or coer­cion against a voter for the purpose of inter­fer­ing with, disrupt­ing, or other­wise inter­rupt­ing their right to vote. foot­note15_92ik8wb 15 See, e.g., 52 U.S.C. § 10101(b); 52 U.S.C. § 10307(b); 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); 18 U.S.C. § 594; Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.932(a) (1954). See also Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, “Viol­a­tions of Michigan and Federal Elec­tions Law Relev­ant to Elec­tion Day,” Oct. 19, 2020, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/04leh­man/Action­able_Elec­tion_Day_Offenses.pdf?rev=8cebef1f92d9465486d66f15398d­c8b2&hash=4AB5F1D­B48EEC­C2797E4533E­F9B0E86E.  Viol­at­ors are subject to signi­fic­ant crim­inal and civil liab­il­ity. foot­note16_p93t­m2y 16 Id.  Enga­ging in voter intim­id­a­tion also viol­ates the elec­tion inspect­or’s oath of office and warrants imme­di­ate removal. foot­note17_who2fn6 17 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.680 (1954). Indeed, any beha­vior that disrupts the “peace, regu­lar­ity and order” at a polling place justi­fies an inspect­or’s removal. foot­note18_tjdgng3 18 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.678 (1954).  Examples of prohib­ited intim­id­a­tion may include direct confront­a­tion with prospect­ive voters or using insult­ing, offens­ive, or threat­en­ing language. foot­note19_9onxkqm 19 See, e.g., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Federal Law Constraints on Post-Elec­tion “Audits” (2021), https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1417796/down­load (explain­ing federal voter intim­id­a­tion laws and explain­ing that intim­id­a­tion may be in the form of both phys­ical and non-phys­ical threats); see also Insti­tute for Consti­tu­tional Advocacy and Protec­tion, Geor­getown Law, Fact Sheet: Protect­ing Against Voter Intim­id­a­tion, https://www.law.geor­getown.edu/icap/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2020/10/Voter-Intim­id­a­tion-Fact-Sheet.pdf (last visited June 21, 2022).

Elec­tion inspect­ors may not disrupt elec­tions through disin­form­a­tion. In addi­tion to prohib­it­ing voter intim­id­a­tion, state law prohib­its any beha­vior that disrupts the peace, regu­lar­ity, and order of the elec­tion process at the polls. foot­note20_i5x6o0r 20 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.678 (1954); see also Mich. Comp. Laws § 750.170 (1931).  Spread­ing disin­form­a­tion that disrupts this peace, regu­lar­ity, and order — includ­ing false inform­a­tion about who can vote, how and when they can vote, or other aspects of the elec­tion process, includ­ing vote count­ing and regis­tra­tion list main­ten­ance — may there­fore viol­ate state law and warrant removal.

Elec­tion inspect­ors may not improp­erly chal­lenge a voter’s eligib­il­ity. Every polling place must have an elec­tion inspector desig­nated as a “chal­lenger liaison” to commu­nic­ate with chal­lengers. foot­note21_9j0w­fin 21 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, The Appoint­ment, Rights, and Duties of Elec­tion Chal­lengers and Poll Watch­ers, 5, last updated May 2022, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/01vander­roest/SOS_ED_2_CHAL­LENGERS.pdf.  The posi­tion of elec­tion inspector is distinct from the posi­tion of chal­lenger; a person cannot be both a chal­lenger and an elec­tion inspector in the same elec­tion. foot­note22_gzy7niu 22 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.730(2) (1954).  Instead, Michigan law permits elec­tion inspect­ors to make chal­lenges to the chal­lenger liaison only under limited circum­stances and with clear constraints. foot­note23_se9dpp0 23 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.727 (1954); see also Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 11: Elec­tion Day Issues, 32–36, last updated Oct. 2020.  Only four permiss­ible reas­ons exist to chal­lenge a voter’s eligib­il­ity: the person is not registered to vote; the person is less than 18 years of age; the person is not a U.S. citizen; or the person has not lived in the city or town­ship in which they are attempt­ing to vote for 30 or more days prior to the elec­tion. foot­note24_7785xf0 24 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, The Appoint­ment, Rights, and Duties of Elec­tion Chal­lengers and Poll Watch­ers, 11–12, last updated May 2022, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/01vander­roest/SOS_ED_2_CHAL­LENGERS.pdf.  The elec­tion inspector must provide a specific and permiss­ible reason that they believe the voter is ineligible to cast a ballot and must provide an explan­a­tion for that belief. foot­note25_cmxt3jq 25 Id.  Improper reas­ons for making a chal­lenge include, but are not limited to, the voter’s manner of dress, inab­il­ity to read or write English, perceived race, ethnic back­ground, phys­ical or mental disab­il­ity, support for or oppos­i­tion to a candid­ate or polit­ical party, or the voter’s need for assist­ance with the voting process. foot­note26_7n6tlg3 26 Id.; Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 11: Elec­tion Day Issues, 33, last updated Oct. 2020.  Any chal­lenge made for the purpose of “annoy­ing or delay­ing voters” consti­tutes a misde­meanor offense. foot­note27_c81q5ba 27 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.727(3) (1954).  Further, improp­erly chal­len­ging a voter is a clear viol­a­tion of federal law. foot­note28_1psjlt5 28 See 18 U.S.C. § 594; 52 U.S.C. § 20511(1); 18 U.S.C. § 245(b)(1)(A).  A chal­lenged voter must be permit­ted to vote a specially prepared “chal­lenged ballot” provided that the voter’s answers under oath prove they are qual­i­fied to vote in the precinct. foot­note29_uwt6ier 29 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 11: Elec­tion Day Issues, 33, last updated Oct. 2020.

Elec­tion inspect­ors do not have discre­tion to determ­ine who can vote and which ballots count. While elec­tion inspect­ors serve as an import­ant safe­guard for Elec­tion Day voting and tabu­la­tion, they have no inde­pend­ent right and no discre­tion to determ­ine who can vote and which ballots can count, includ­ing absentee voter (AV) ballots, other than follow­ing the law and instruc­tions of their elec­tion juris­dic­tion. foot­note30_mze0jhm 30 Mich. Const. art. II, § 4(1)(f); Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 168.509o, 168.680 (1954).  For example, the Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions makes clear that:

  • elec­tion inspect­ors must accom­mod­ate voters with limited English profi­ciency and allow them to bring their own trans­lat­ors to a polling loca­tion and into the voting booth; foot­note31_owdgrpm 31 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 11: Elec­tion Day Issues, 25, last updated Oct. 2020.
  • elec­tion inspect­ors cannot treat the absence of a phys­ical AV ballot as a reason to not issue the voter an Elec­tion Day ballot. Rather, the elec­tion inspector must call the local clerk to confirm that the AV ballot has not been returned and then issue the voter a regu­lar ballot, provided the voter is will­ing to sign an affi­davit attest­ing to the AV ballot being lost or destroyed; foot­note32_r8km1xt 32 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 8: Absent Voter Ballot Elec­tion Day Processing, 8, last updated Oct. 2020; Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, The Appoint­ment, Rights, and Duties of Elec­tion Chal­lengers and Poll Watch­ers, 16–17, last updated May 2022, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/01vander­roest/SOS_ED_2_CHAL­LENGERS.pdf.
  • if a voter submits an AV ballot after inad­vert­ently tear­ing off the ballot number stub, the ballot should still be coun­ted as a chal­lenged ballot; foot­note33_wcm4d69 33 See Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 8: Absent Voter Ballot Elec­tion Day Processing, 5, last updated Oct. 2020.  and
  • if a voter submits an AV ballot that cannot be read by a tabu­lator, elec­tion inspect­ors must follow the routine prac­tice of duplic­at­ing the ballot so that it can be read by the tabu­lator. foot­note34_j2comka 34 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.798 (1954); see also Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 8: Absent Voter Ballot Elec­tion Day Processing, 6, last updated Oct. 2020.

Elec­tion inspect­ors should complete certain tasks in two-person teams. Where possible, state law requires bipar­tisan teams to conduct certain tasks so as to limit the access that any one indi­vidual has to ballots, voting equip­ment, and other sens­it­ive mater­i­als without over­sight. This includes the follow­ing duties:

  • assist­ing voters who request instruc­tion after enter­ing a voting station;
  • open­ing any elec­tronic tabu­lat­ing equip­ment during the day to ensure its proper oper­a­tion;
  • seal­ing ballot contain­ers, elec­tronic devices, or any other elec­tion mater­i­als; and
  • deliv­er­ing docu­ments and sealed ballots after the polls close. foot­note35_xd8dr8t 35 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 11: Elec­tion Day Issues, 43, last updated Oct. 2020.

Elec­tion inspect­ors may not tamper with and/or improp­erly remove elec­tion equip­ment. It is a felony offense to tamper with and/or improp­erly remove elec­tion equip­ment; elec­tion inspect­ors must prop­erly secure elec­tion equip­ment after polls close. foot­note36_hz3hedc 36 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.932 (1954).

Avail­able Enforce­ment Mech­an­isms

Michigan elec­tion offi­cials have broad author­ity to ensure that elec­tions run smoothly and remain free from disrup­tions by rogue elec­tion inspect­ors. Avail­able enforce­ment mech­an­isms include, for example:

Screen­ing Process. Boards of elec­tion commis­sion­ers and clerks can refuse to appoint indi­vidu­als who cannot meet or are unwill­ing to follow the above eligib­il­ity criteria and constraints. foot­note37_7wtjoq1 37 Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 168.674, 168.677, 168.683 (1954). They have author­ity to develop clear elec­tion inspector screen­ing plans to ensure that applic­ants submit complete applic­a­tions, under­stand that they must answer to elec­tion offi­cials, and are will­ing to follow all applic­able laws and proced­ures. foot­note38_0yhg­s92 38 Id.  Applic­ants may not, however, be turned away based solely on their polit­ical view­points or beliefs.

Train­ing Content. Under state law, each city, town­ship, or county clerk must hold a mandat­ory train­ing for all city and town­ship elec­tion inspect­ors within the juris­dic­tion before the primary and general elec­tion. foot­note39_ize4jho 39 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.683 (1954).  At this train­ing, clerks should remind elec­tion inspect­ors about relev­ant laws and rules, includ­ing their duty to answer only to their proper elec­tion offi­cial chain of command rather than their polit­ical parties, any party offi­cial, or any other outside indi­vidual or entity. foot­note40_hegr76x 40 See, e.g., Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 13: Appoint­ing and Train­ing Elec­tion Inspect­ors, last updated Feb. 2019. See also Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, “Managing Your Precinct on Elec­tion Day: Elec­tion Inspect­ors’ Proced­ure Manual,” Jan. 29, 2020, https://fhgov.com/getat­tach­ment/9bd6a14b-a4f8–4be1–95d3-facb96130346/Elec­tion­In­spect­or­sPro­ced­ure­Manual.aspx.  Simil­arly, clerks should train elec­tion inspect­ors to identify and report any viol­a­tions of these proced­ures — whether by their fellow elec­tion inspect­ors or other indi­vidu­als. These train­ing sessions provide an oppor­tun­ity for clerks to clearly and fully explain the checks in place to prevent voter fraud or manip­u­la­tion of the elec­tion process and provide context to correct common rumors and misper­cep­tions. Hands-on train­ing with voting equip­ment can be espe­cially help­ful for demon­strat­ing secur­ity meas­ures.

Assign­ing chair­per­sons and inspect­ors. Given the chair­per­son’s role in over­see­ing voter chal­lenges and main­tain­ing order at the polling place, boards should choose — to the extent possible — to appoint only indi­vidu­als with substan­tial previ­ous elec­tion inspector exper­i­ence and demon­strated know­ledge of voting proced­ures to serve in this role. foot­note41_fo7z937 41 See gener­ally Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, Elec­tion Offi­cials’ Manual, Ch. 11: Elec­tion Day Issues, last updated Oct. 2020.  Local offi­cials also can track where first-time elec­tion inspect­ors are placed, distrib­ute first-time inspect­ors evenly across the juris­dic­tion, and ensure that every precinct has at least one inspector with previ­ous exper­i­ence.

Dispute resol­u­tion. Elec­tion inspect­ors may from time to time disagree over elec­tion rules and proced­ures. Clerks should create a set proced­ure for report­ing disputes up the chain of command to a clerk’s office employee or the clerk directly so they can be quickly resolved. To minim­ize disrup­tions to the elec­tion process, clerks also can train all elec­tion inspect­ors — espe­cially precinct chair­per­sons — in effect­ive meth­ods of dispute resol­u­tion.

In the event that an elec­tion inspector refuses to follow the chain of command or applic­able laws, or other­wise disrupts the elec­tion process in viol­a­tion of their office, that inspector should be imme­di­ately removed or reas­signed. foot­note42_63i9690 42 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, “Author­ity of City and Town­ship Clerks Over Elec­tion Inspect­ors,” June 2022, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/Elec­tion-Admin­is­trat­ors/Clerk-Author­ity-Over-Elec­tion-Inspect­ors.pdf?rev=32dc06a9b2224745a153c9e3a6d10221&hash=2D4E2F9C56CF3CF1962B­F24B934777F5.  In case a disrup­tion occurs, clerks should prepare a set removal plan and proced­ure. This plan could include, for example: (1) a writ­ten list of common grounds for removal or reas­sign­ment, (2) prop­erly docu­ment­ing the cause of the removal and all parties involved, and (3) main­tain­ing a list of backup elec­tion inspect­ors to cover staff­ing short­ages in the event the clerk determ­ines that a replace­ment elec­tion inspector is neces­sary. Clerks can further train and empower chair­per­sons with the author­ity to remove elec­tion inspect­ors in emer­gency situ­ations. foot­note43_j9ro­gpm 43 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.678.  If an elec­tion inspector is dismissed, they must leave the polling place without disrupt­ing the voting process. foot­note44_2i51oe6 44 Michigan Bureau of Elec­tions, “Author­ity of City and Town­ship Clerks Over Elec­tion Inspect­ors,” June 2022, https://www.michigan.gov/sos/-/media/Project/Websites/sos/Elec­tion-Admin­is­trat­ors/Clerk-Author­ity-Over-Elec­tion-Inspect­ors.pdf?rev=32dc06a9b2224745a153c9e3a6d10221&hash=2D4E2F9C56CF3CF1962B­F24B934777F5.

Oath of Office. The oath of office provides a strong legal basis for prevent­ing and address­ing abuses by elec­tion inspect­ors.

End Notes