Whitmer to clerks: Send all new registrants an absentee ballot for May 5

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order Friday temporarily changing state voting laws for jurisdictions with a May 5 election and allowing some May elections to be postponed to Aug. 4 or later in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In those jurisdictions still holding elections, all clerks are required to send absentee ballots to new registrants under the order and absentee applications must be mailed to all currently registered voters in those areas.

The order requires clerks to “immediately begin preparations to conduct the election primarily by mail” and limits each jurisdiction to just one polling location for in-person voting.

“The fewer people we have lining up at polling places the better, ensuring Michiganders safely practice social distancing while allowing them to safely exercise their right to vote in local elections,” Whitmer said in a statement.

The order was swiftly opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who argued the May elections should be delayed instead. He cautioned against “decisions made in haste” and asked Whitmer to “reconsider this misstep.”

"Our Governor has authorized the Secretary of State to send absentee ballots to individuals who apply to register to vote without first ensuring proper verification,” Shirkey said. “This unilateral change to how we secure our elections has the potential to invite fraud and security concerns that may last well beyond the circumstances of today.”

Sen. Ruth Johnson, Michigan's former secretary of state, also said she was "disappointed" in the order and what it might mean for election workers who typically are seniors more vulnerable to the virus. 

"Clerks were already having difficulty getting supplies like hand sanitizer for the March primary," Johnson said. "We are the new hotspot for this pandemic in the country. These elections should have been postponed until the worst passes and we can give our clerks time to better prepare."

The order follows an announcement from Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson earlier this week directing clerks to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in which a local election will take place May 5.

Many of those elections have been canceled or postponed, but Whitmer’s order doubles down on Benson’s initiative by requiring an actual ballot be mailed to all new registrants in jurisdictions where the May 5 election will proceed as planned.

The order also encourages new registrants to register before April 20 online or by mail to cut down on the lines that crowded clerk’s offices March 10 as voters took advantage of same-day registration.

“At this time, conducting an in-person election would force voters and poll workers to be exposed to an unacceptably high risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19,” Whitmer said in her executive order.

New registrants who fail to submit their paperwork online or by mail prior to April 20 can still do so in-person at their clerk’s office but are encouraged to call ahead, according to the order.

Clerks during that time period between April 21 and May 5 can also accept an application to register to vote and proof of residency by mail, email or fax.

The order allows Benson’s office to assist local clerks with mailings and election organization.

Benson applauded Whitmer’s order, noting that the cancellation of elections because of coronavirus “signals that, in a time of great challenge and uncertainty, we would opt to give up on the fundamental building block of our republic.”

“Our sharpest tool to ensure citizens do not have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their health is the constitutional right they have to vote by mail, which voters themselves enshrined in our state constitution in 2018,” Benson said.