The Great Ballot Debate: How Absentee Voting During The Pandemic is Causing Political Controversy

This year’s August and November elections are high stakes. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden even called November’s election one for “America’s Soul.” One could even argue America is as divided as it was in the 1960s, or even the 1860s when there was an actual Civil War going on. Add a pandemic and the real fear of getting sick while waiting in long lines to vote, and things get vastly more complicated. 

To ensure everyone gets a chance to vote safely, many Democrats across the nation are pushing for or have already allowed for vote by mail options in their states. However, many Republicans from President Trump on down are pushing back against this idea, saying it opens up the possibility of massive voter fraud and questionable election results. This debate is as heated as any in this most divisive era, but what are the realities behind both sides’ arguments? Does absentee voting open the door for fraud or is it a viable and fair way to hold an election in a COVID-19 world? More importantly, what will voting be like in Michigan during this unusual year? 

The Nuts and Bolts

There can be confusion about the difference between mail-in and absentee votes, and people often lump the two together. Absentee votes are cast by people who cannot go to their local polling place on Election Day for whatever reason, like traveling overseas or being a student who can’t be in their hometown on Election Day. To get an absentee ballot, a voter must request one from their state which they then complete, sign, and return by mail. These can be rejected if filled out incorrectly and heavy legal fines given for fraud. All 50 states allow absentee voting but only 17 of them require an excuse to vote absentee.

Mail-in votes are where every registered voter can request or is sent a ballot application in their state without needing an excuse for why they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. Twenty nine states, including Michigan, offer no excuse, mail-in ballots. It is also the default practice in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Utah, and Colorado, although people there can also vote in-person if they want (The Hill, June 9, 2020).

In 2018, Michigan voters approved mail-in or no excuse absentee ballots after a push by voter rights groups. Under the new law, voters are allowed to request a ballot from their local clerk, fill it out, sign it, and then mail it back, or email and scan it. You may also register to vote on Election Day and get an absentee ballot at your county clerk’s office under the new law.

As COVID-19 hit Michigan and the rest of the country, and with a possible vaccine perhaps a year or more away, there were concerns about the health and safety of voters standing in long lines on Election Day. In response, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced in May she would use 4.5 million in funds from the Coronavirus Relief Bill to send out absentee ballots to 7.7 million registered voters in Michigan.

Then on June 12, Benson added yet another way voters could cast their vote digitally. This could be done by submitting their driver’s license or state ID plus the last four digits of their social security number online. When their application is completed, voters can then use an online tool to send in their signature to local clerks. After the clerk verifies the signature and information, they will send the ballot to the voter in time for the upcoming election.

“The more choices a person has when it comes to exercising their right to vote, the better they are able to make the choice that works best for them.” Benson said.

However, in this especially politically charged era, this move caused some real political fireworks.

Fears of Fraud and Overreach

In response, many Republicans, including President Trump, condemned the move. Trump even called Benson a “…rogue Secretary of State” in a tweet. He also threatened to pull funding from Michigan. Additionally, many Republicans claimed the mailed ballot applications would be easy targets for voter fraud, even though many studies have shown that instances of voter fraud are actually very minimal and don’t generally favor either side (Brookings Institution, June 2, 2020).

Benson’s actions caused protest by Trump supporters to spark in Walker, Michigan — a suburb of Grand Rapids who burned ballot letters from Benson’s office informing them they could vote by mail with an absentee ballot. Trump even weighed in, saying Benson was sending out actual ballots, which was incorrect as she was actually sending out ballot applications. Micheal Farage, the president of the Grand Rapids Taxpayers association, was critical of the mass mailings calling them “…a great waste of taxpayer money.” (Detroit News, June 13, 2020)

Benson also went to Washington DC on June 3 to testify before a House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties about making voting more safe during COVID-19.

“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote.” Benson said.

Republican State Senator and former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson is an especially outspoken critic of Benson for mailing out these ballot applications. During a recent election hearing, Johnson accused Benson of trying to overreach her powers and centralize a function of local clerks through mailing the ballot applications, a move she called ‘truly alarming’.

Johnson, who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, said many local clerks statewide had deep concerns about mailing out ballot applications for both the August and November elections, a move she said “…negatively affected clerks, who feel that their voices are often not heard.”

During the hearing Johnson pointed to a stack of papers she said were countless examples collected from residents of ballot applications being mailed to the deceased, residents who had since moved, or non citizens.

Kent County Clerk Lisa Pothumus, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018, told Johnson’s committee that Benson had overstepped her power and made life for local clerks  difficult.

“She continues to make unilateral decisions that are ill-thought-out, they’re rushed. And most importantly, they’re untested.” Johnson said.

Jake Rollow, the Dept of State’s spokesman said Lyon’s and Johnson’s concerns are overblown at best. He said the state has offered absentee ballot applications on it’s website for years and added that there’s little risk of fraud. He said automatic voter registration identifies residents who have moved out of the state and are still on the voter rolls by checking if they’re eligible when they do business at the Secretary of State, like renewing their license. He added that Benson was using data and practices developed in other states to make Michigan’s elections, “More modern, secure, and accessible.”

Democratic House Leader Christine Grieg added that Johnson’s allegations were nothing more than “fear mongering” designed to shake the voters’ faith in the process.

Lyons said Benson mailing out absentee ballot applications is still illegal and only local officials can send them out. Rollow said that was false and that both political parties mail ballot applications before most big elections. He added that Benson’s job is to make voters aware they can cast no-reason ballots plus make sure everyone had access to them.

In fact, Benson was subject to a lawsuit over this issue but a court of claims judge denied a request to stop her from mailing out ballot applications because she’s not a local official. (Mlive, June 9, 2020)

There seems to be little doubt that many voters in Michigan want to vote remotely during this pandemic. Requests for absentee ballot applications in Michigan have increased by 1 million for the August 4 primary compared to the 2016 primary, a 350% increase according to Benson’s office, plus a slight uptick in voter registration overall. (Detroit News, July 2, 2020)

How Will it Go?

Washtenaw County Clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum agrees with mail-in voting. He called absentee ballot applications blank forms that are already widely available and said it wasn’t a big deal for Benson to send them out. He said she had coordinated with local clerks to ‘maximize coverage and minimize duplication,’ and that almost all the responses to these mailings had been positive throughout Washtenaw County. He added that the Republican’s fears were less about fraud and more about voter suppression.

Kestenbaum believes that both the August and November elections will run smoothly, but there are some issues that concern him. Under Michigan law, anyone who wants to register to vote 14 days before or on Election Day has to go to their local city or township clerk’s office. He fears that many clerk’s offices, especially in bigger cities and college towns, will have big crowds and long lines of people wanting to register to vote. He said handling those crowds will be a challenge.

‘It is inevitable that a lot of people, not yet registered to vote, will decide to register and vote on Election Day.’ Kestenbaum said in an email.

He also believes most votes in August and November will be cast by absentee ballots and counting all those votes could be challenging.

“Processing absentee ballots is labor intensive. Predictions that ballot counting will take days or weeks are overblown. That said, to complete the task and get results by the next day we will need lots of people to staff absentee counting boards” Kestenbaum said (via email).

Kestenbaum also said that local cities and townships are aggressively recruiting poll workers right now. He stressed poll workers are not volunteers and they get paid around $15 per hour for both training and working on Election Day. He said younger workers are especially needed, and 16 and 17 year olds are eligible for these jobs.

Hopefully a Smooth Ride

Kestenbaum said he’s sorry about the political rift over mail-in voting between Benson and Johnson, but he sides with Benson on the issue. He said he’s heard nothing negative from clerks across the county about Benson mailing out applications but if some of them disagreed with her, none have told him about it. 

Kestenbaum said to those who fear voter fraud that the rules and procedures of running fair elections are taken very seriously by election officials across the state. He said in the end voter fraud is rare, and likely to be discovered and its perpetrators caught.

“The election system is more secure than most people realize,” Kestenbaum said.

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