Detroit Department of Elections | Ken Coleman
The novel coronavirus has already shaken up work, schools, travel, recreation and more. Now as Michigan’s primary election arrives Tuesday and pandemic-stricken America nears the November general election, the virus looks like it could wreak havoc on the process.
In Michigan — where a little more than 2 million voters requested an absentee ballot for the statewide primary — election officials now face the task of counting a surge in mail-in ballots, as they can’t do so before Election Day.
There’s also been a slowdown in mail service amid President Trump administration cuts that has further complicated the process. But last week, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that ballots must be received by Election Day in order to count.
Some voting rights advocates are calling for legislation to help speed up that process.
“Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s never been more important to ensure every Michigan voter is able to safely exercise their constitutional right to vote,” said East Lansing Clerk Jennifer Shuster. “… We’ve done our part by changing our policies to expand access to voting and make it easier to safely cast their votes during these unprecedented times. Now it’s time for lawmakers to do their part and pass legislation that makes voting by mail easier.”
Pandemic puts spotlight on absentee voting
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into voting in-person in Michigan’s August and November elections. Although the Michigan Bureau of Elections says it is supplying jurisdictions with masks, gloves and cleaning supplies, several voters are seeking voting avenues that don’t involve standing in crowded lines on Election Day, where disease could be transmitted.
That’s where the absentee ballot plays a role. Several secretaries of state, including Michigan’s Jocelyn Benson, have urged voters to request absentee ballots and mail them in due to health risks posed by COVID-19.
Voting absentee means a registered voter can request a ballot before the day of an election, fill it out early and return it to be counted. It’s commonly used if someone knows they can’t cast a vote in-person on the set date of an election.
In May local elections, 99% of votes were cast by mail and turnout was the highest it has ever been for such an election.
That’s in large part due to Michigan voters approving in 2018 Proposal 3, a sweeping ballot initiative that amended the state Constitution to add several voting accessibility policies, including same-day voter registration, straight-ticket voting and the no-excuse absentee voting option now top of mind.
More than 1.2 million voters applied for, received and turned in absentee ballots ahead of the Tuesday primary, according to data from Benson’s office. That’s nearly triple the number of absentee ballots returned ahead of Michigan’s 2016 primary during the last presidential year.
Benson’s office attributes the spike to people choosing absentee voting over in-person voting during the pandemic. Election clerks now face a task of handling a record increase in mailed-in or dropped-off ballots.
Efforts to speed up ballot counting
Benson has stressed that it could take several days to know election outcomes because of upticks in absentee ballots.
Multiple county clerks and voting rights organizations in Michigan have recently called on the GOP-majority state Legislature to pass legislation that allows for pre-processing of absentee ballots. Right now, counting absentee ballots can’t begin until 7 a.m. the day of an election.
Some lawmakers have already introduced legislation that addresses the issue, but it hasn’t made it through the state House or Senate.
State Reps. Kara Hope (D-Holt) and Leslie Love (D-Detroit) last month asked legislators for an immediate hearing on a four-bill package that lets local clerks process absentee ballots before Election Day. The bills, HB 5447–5450, were referred to the state House Appropriations and Elections and Ethics Committees back in February. Since then, no action has been taken.
Hope said Michigan’s current election infrastructure is not designed to process ballots for Tuesday’s election nor the Nov. 3 general election.
“Our clerks and election workers need the tools to handle the higher volume of mail-in ballots,” Hope said. “If we don’t make these changes now, we are putting ourselves at risk for long lines at the polls and even longer election reporting delays.”
HB 5447 lets processing of absentee ballots begin at 7 a.m. the day before an election. HB 5448 allocates $3 million to city, village and township clerks so they can purchase new, faster tabulators to more quickly process the increase in absentee ballots. The two bills are sponsored by Love.
HB 5449 lets a municipality use an absent voter counting board to allow election inspectors to work in shifts and depart a counting location after tallying begins and prior to polls closing. HB 5450 allocates $1.5 million to give raises to election inspectors and hire new ones if higher voter turnout is anticipated. The two bills are sponsored by Hope.
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democratic former state representative, urged the Legislature to pass the bill package to make the voting process “as straightforward as possible.”
Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown and Macomb County Clerk Fred Miller — Democrats who oversee voting in Michigan’s second- and third-most populous counties, respectively — also called on lawmakers in Lansing to pass legislation to accommodate absentee voting.
“Specifically, codifying permanent voter ballot application lists, allowing pre-processing of absentee ballots by local clerks, and allowing ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted are all important ways to help election officials and voters across the state,” Miller said.
Several groups, including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) have asked the Legislature to expand options for casting ballots. The LCV wants fully staffed in-person polling locations, early voting sites and a secure drop box for absentee ballots in every jurisdiction.
Kim Murphy-Kovalick, the state field director for nonpartisan advocacy organization Voters not Politicians, also said the group has been working with Michigan clerks to expand hours for registering to vote and absentee voting.
Myths about elections and voting
Two-thirds of American voters are in favor of voting by mail, according to an April survey from Pew Research Center. But Republicans have been stepping up their criticism of the process in recent months. President Trump has tweeted several times, without evidence, that voting by mail could lead to pervasive voter fraud because of a backlog of election results.
Trump, who is up for reelection on Nov. 3, floated the idea of delaying the general election until widespread in-person voting can safely happen. He doesn’t have the authority to change that date. Congress does, but moving the date beyond December would require an amendment to the Constitution. Several Republicans have already indicated the November election date is set in stone.
The president pulled Michigan into the mix in May, when he accused Benson of distributing absentee ballots to the state’s 7.7 million registered voters. The swing state’s top election official actually used $4.5 million in COVID-19 federal relief funds to mail out absentee ballot applications, not real ballots themselves.
Benson, a Democrat, said she opted for absentee ballot applications to decrease public health risks posed by in-person voting, as clerks in other states have done. The move drew criticism from some in the state Legislature, like Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who said the cost of mailing them was an “unnecessary expense.”
Benson testified last week about her actions before the state Senate Elections Committee. It’s chaired by Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), who was secretary of state from 2011 to 2019.
Johnson pointed out that some people who no longer qualify for a Michigan ballot received ballot applications and raised concerns about voter fraud. Benson said people contacted her office after that to say they are no longer qualified for a ballot, which helped update the state’s voter registry.
Byrum notes that many steps are in place to ensure the integrity of the election process.
“In order for a clerk to mail an actual ballot to a voter, the applications must have a signature that matches the signature on the registration list,” Byrum said. “Those signatures must match the signature on the ballot envelope when it is returned in order for the ballot to be tabulated.”
Johnson also has criticized the mailing of ballot applications from Benson’s office as too costly an endeavor and labeled it something that should be done by local clerks, not the secretary of state’s office.
Voter fraud in U.S. elections is a very rare phenomenon, according to multiple studies. Voter impersonation is nearly nonexistent, while several instances of alleged voter fraud later turn out to be mistakes by voters or administrators. A multitude of studies that examine claims of voter fraud in U.S. elections can be found at the Brennan Center for Justice website.
Voters can report suspected election abuse, fraud or waste to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Reports can be made via the OIG’s hotline number, email address or online complaint form.
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