Michigan Settlement to Relax Social Distancing for Poll Watchers

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The State of Michigan will allow poll watchers to be within six feet of poll workers, despite COVID-19 social distancing precautions, as part of a settlement announced yesterday. MLive has more:

Election challengers won’t need to bring their binoculars to watch over the election process next Tuesday, Nov. 3.

The Michigan Secretary of State’s office has settled a lawsuit about social distancing requirements for poll challengers and watchers, filed by State House candidate Steve Carra, R-Three Rivers. The parties announced the deal in front of Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens on Wednesday, Oct. 28. 

Masks are still required for poll challengers and watchers who can medically tolerate them, but the state will send out new guidance this week about social distancing requirements. 

The original directive from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said election workers can strictly enforce social distancing between challengers and poll workers. 

The new guidance allows close contact in necessary situations, Carra’s attorney Matt Gronda said in Wednesday’s hearing. 

“To the extent that it is necessary to stand in closer proximity to election workers to have a challenge heard, to observe the poll book or perform any other legal duty, challengers and poll watchers are permitted to do so, provided close personal interaction is as brief as possible,” Gronda said, citing the agreement.

State law allows poll challengers to observe the process and challenge procedures. People must register with their clerk’s office in advance through a political party or group to be a challenger. Poll watchers have less power – they’re essentially just there to be a fly on the wall. Anybody can be a watcher and stand in the designated space without needing prior approval.

In the lawsuit, Carra submitted a recording of a Detroit poll worker training, where an official told workers to keep challengers 6 feet away at all times – admitting they’d need “really good vision” or “binoculars” to see what was going on.

Robert Cushman is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He was a poll challenger in August, but wasn’t allowed within 6 feet due to social distancing. This made it nearly impossible to do the job, per the lawsuit.

SOS officials called this a “frivolous lawsuit” earlier this week, saying challengers were already allowed to be within 6 feet of workers when necessary – although that wasn’t clear in the Oct. 16 directive.

The agreement is an interesting consequence of the tension between the desire for distancing and the need for transparency in the election process. Here’s hoping that everyone involved can honor the agreement in the spirit in which it was intended and that everyone can stay safe on Election Day. Stay tuned …

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