The Daily Brew: Q&A on recent mail-in ballot ruling

Welcome to the Thursday, April 1, Brew. Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. Q&A with our election policy expert on a recent mail-in ballot court ruling
  2. Biden announces first judicial nominees
  3. Local roundup: Voters to decide mayoral, other local office elections in Anchorage, Alaska, on April 6

Q&A with our election policy expert on a recent mail-in ballot court ruling

On March 9, the Michigan Court of Claims invalidated an absentee/mail-in ballot rule that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) put in place before last November’s elections. 

That rule—put in place on Oct. 6—directed local clerks to treat signatures on absentee/mail-in ballot applications and return envelopes as valid if there were “any redeeming qualities in the application or return envelope signature as compared to the signature on file.” Redeeming qualities included “similar distinctive flourishes” and “more matching features than non-matching features.” 

To try and better understand the judge’s ruling, I turned to our election policy expert, Jerrick Adams. Here’s a brief summary of our exchange. My questions are bolded below.

This rule was already in effect in 2020, and the election already happened. Does this have any retroactive effect?

No. But the ruling affects future elections because it invalidated Benson’s guidance. It’s also an example of a post-2020 court action addressing the ultimate legality of policies implemented in 2020.

Michigan was one of 39 states that modified its general election procedures last year. These modifications—and, sometimes, the lack thereof—triggered a wave of litigation. Before the general election, there were at least 425 lawsuits and appeals filed. Two-hundred forty-two of those dealt primarily with absentee/mail-in voting procedures. 

Courts issued orders in most of these cases before the election, but they did not necessarily make final rulings on the questions of law presented in those cases. 

Who filed the lawsuit and why?

Allegan County Clerk Robert Genetski (R) and the Republican Party of Michigan sued Benson, alleging her guidance violated the state’s election laws and the Administrative Procedures Act. The court sided with the plaintiffs.

Why did the court say Benson’s rule should have complied with the Administrative Procedures Act?

The ruling cited a previous court ruling that said a state agency must follow formal rulemaking procedures under the APA (holding public hearings and consulting with state legislators and legislative staffers, for example) when establishing policies that “do not merely interpret or explain the statute of rules from which the agency derives its authority,” but rather “establish the substantive standards implementing the program.” 

The court ruled, “Policy determinations like the one at issue—which places a thumb on the scale in favor of a signature’s validity—should be made pursuant to properly promulgated rules under the APA or by the Legislature.”

Thanks, Jerrick!

It is unclear whether the state will appeal the decision. You can find information on other post-2020 cases here

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Biden announces first judicial nominees

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden announced his first batch of federal judicial nominations. As a brief reminder: Presidents nominate and the Senate confirms federal judges. Over the past 40 years, each president appointed the following number of Article III judges in their first term:

  • Ronald Reagan: 166
  • George H.W. Bush: 193
  • Bill Clinton: 203
  • George W. Bush: 204
  • Barack Obama: 173
  • Donald Trump: 234

On March 30, Biden announced his intent to nominate 11 individuals to federal judgeships. Of those, 10 nominations would be for Article III judgeships with lifetime terms:

  • Ketanji Brown Jackson, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
  • Tiffany Cunningham, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
  • Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit
  • Regina Rodriguez, U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado
  • Florence Pan, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
  • Deborah Boardman, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland
  • Lydia Kay Griggsby, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland
  • Julien Neals, U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey
  • Zahid Quraishi, U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey
  • Margaret Strickland, U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico

President Biden announced his intent to nominate Rupa Ranga Puttagunta to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, which is not an Article III judgeship. These judges are appointed to 15-year terms.

As of his inauguration in January 2021, President Biden inherited 46 Article III vacancies: two vacancies in the U.S. courts of appeal, 43 vacancies in the U.S. district courts, and one vacancy on the U.S. Court of International Trade. There are 70 current Article III vacancies of 870 total Article III judgeships.  

President Donald Trump (R) submitted his first Article III judicial nomination—Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court—on Jan. 31, 2017. Trump submitted his first non-SCOTUS Article III nomination—Amul Thapar to the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit—on March 21, 2017. Thapar was Trump’s only March federal judge nomination.

At the start of his first term, President Trump inherited 108 Article III federal judicial vacancies

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Local roundup: Voters to decide mayoral, other local office elections in Anchorage, Alaska, on April 6

Thirty-one of the 100 largest cities by population are holding mayoral elections in 2021. Let’s take a look at one of those races today. The city of Anchorage, Alaska, is holding a nonpartisan general election for mayor on April 6. Fourteen candidates are running. Media attention has been focused on six candidates: David Bronson, Forrest Dunbar, Bill Evans, Bill Falsey, George Martinez, and Mike Robbins. 

Dunbar ran for U.S. House as a Democrat in 2014. Planned Parenthood endorsed Dunbar, Martinez, and Falsey. Robbins is the chairman of the Republican Party of Alaska for District 26 of the Alaska House of Representatives, and six Republican state legislators endorsed him. State Sen. Natasha A. Von Imhof (R) endorsed Evans. Former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell (R) endorsed Bronson. 

A candidate needs to win at least 45% of the vote to win the April 6 election. If no candidate reaches that threshold, the two with the most votes will head to a runoff on May 11.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz (D) resigned from office in October 2020. The Anchorage Assembly selected Austin Quinn-Davidson to serve as acting mayor until a successor is elected and sworn in.

Four school board seats and 11 propositions are also on the Anchorage ballot on April 6.

Eight other states besides Alaska are holding local and special state legislative elections on April 6: California, Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. See our elections calendar for a list of elections within our coverage scope and links to more information.

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