Skip Navigation
Resource

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
View the entire Poll Worker Rules and Constraints series

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_u2jeu4l 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_pq1djo8 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_unigga5 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_sihtdzq 4 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.677 (1954).  Any false statements made on the application will disqualify the applicant. footnote5_7ngpoah 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_esz5byo 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_0adfsbg 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_cjd5k7x 8 Id.  Each precinct must have a designated chairperson and at least two additional election inspectors. footnote9_1rftl4p 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_047xjsc 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_qou9e9f 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_14uqlhk 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_hi9w4qy 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_r2j05yk 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_73rb4on 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_h3787fk 16 Id.  Engaging in voter intimidation also violates the election inspector’s oath of office and warrants immediate removal. footnote17_8kzdej0 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_d53p3bl 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_6ak1qzb 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_qcp9xui 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_x1iug6m 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_1cj4fpr 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_1yf5u3k 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_t1g1wun 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_1ezegii 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_f6nahdz 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_9f22u4j 27 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.727(3) (1954).  Further, improperly challenging a voter is a clear violation of federal law. footnote28_drs5pfp 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_dcjiajj 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_epe5rf0 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_83ul80s 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_5qn4nhm 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_xtk4alq 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_5jy9a9f 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_92amwga 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_objtj3b 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_i04pg48 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_k39b0bw 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_3osleb5 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_u3mcsxu 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_0bhj9lk 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_yh6r822 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_ub4cz5g 43 Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.678.  If an election inspector is dismissed, they must leave the polling place without disrupting the voting process. footnote44_bhpfwd0 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