(The Center Square) – A Michigan Court of Claims judge has struck down Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s directive that local election clerks presume absentee ballot signatures are valid.

On Oct. 6, Benson directed city clerks to operate under the presumption signatures were valid when matching absentee ballot signatures with the voter signature on file to ensure they are the same person and to prevent voter fraud.

“The presumption is found nowhere in state law,” Judge Christopher M. Murray wrote in a March 9 opinion. “The mandatory presumption goes beyond the realm of mere advice and direction, and instead is a substantive directive that adds to the pertinent signature-matching standards.”

Murray said Benson created the rule, bypassing the administrative rulemaking process.

“[T]he guidance issued by the Secretary of State on October 6, 2020, with respect to signature-matching standards was issued in violation of the Administrative Procedures Act,” Murray wrote.

The Administrative Procedures Act requires state agencies developing a rule to spend months analyzing the rule, issuing public notices and conducting hearings. Afterward, that rule is submitted to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, where they further study and eventually file with the secretary of state.

The judge didn’t rule whether Benson’s directive violated state election law.

“Nowhere in the state’s election law has the Legislature indicated that signatures are to be presumed valid, nor did the Legislature require that signatures are to be accepted so long as there are any redeeming qualities in the application or return envelope signature as compared with the signature on file,” Murray wrote.

In October, Allegan County Clerk Robert Genetski and the GOP sued over the directive. It’s too late to apply the decision to the 2020 presidential election retroactively. However, the ruling throws out the policy in future elections.

Genetski didn’t allege this guidance caused him to accept a signature that he believed was invalid, court documents said.

 Michigan Department of State spokesperson Jake Rollow told The Center Square “The November 2020 election was the most secure election in Michigan history.”

This suit is not about the integrity of the election, and there’s no question that clerks reviewed absentee ballots appropriately to ensure only eligible voters cast ballots,” Rollow said in a statement. “This suit involves a technical issue of how the Bureau of Elections administers guidance to clerks. We are still reviewing the decision and have not determined if we will appeal.”

 The GOP celebrated the ruling.

“It was clear from the outset that the Secretary of State had violated Election Law by unilaterally directing local clerks to ignore their statutory obligation to compare absentee ballot signatures,” Michigan Republican Party communications director Ted Goodman said in a statement. “Rather than follow the statute’s safeguards which require clerks to verify absentee ballot signatures against the state’s database, the Secretary of State directed clerks to instead assume that every signature on an absentee ballot was valid without checking them against that database.”

SOS data said fewer than 1% of Michigan’s 3.3 million absentee ballots cast in the Nov. 3 general election were rejected by local election clerks.