Gov. Whitmer proposes $79B budget with record school funding, tax relief

All state registered voters to be mailed Aug., Nov. absentee ballot applications

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson will mail all of Michigan’s 7.7 million voters an absentee voter application for the August and November elections. 

The Detroit Democrat previously said she would focus on “educating” voters on their right to vote absentee for no reason in August and November. But in a Tuesday statement, the secretary of state changed her tune. 

The decision fulfills the “responsibility to provide all voters equal access,” Benson said. 

“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote. Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”

Similar initiatives throughout the nation have been opposed by the Republican National Committee, which argues that such actions open the door to potential election fraud.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Michigan already allow voters to cast ballots by mail for any reason.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey's office said the mailing was an "unnecessary expense."

"Michigan voters already have the ability to request and complete an application, receive an absentee ballot, and submit an absentee ballot all without ever leaving their homes," said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

GOP Sen. Ruth Johnson, the former Secretary of State, said local clerks usually handle absentee ballot requests.

“I do question how and why this specific mailing was done right now," Johnson said. "... Like Gov. Whitmer, Secretary Benson seems to be taking unilateral actions with no input and questionable motives — and that is very troubling."

The secretary of state plans to use federal CARES Act funding to pay the estimated $4.5 million it will cost to mail absentee ballots to every registered voter. 

During the May 5 local elections, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered that every voter be mailed an absentee ballot application to encourage a vote-by-mail system in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The state saw record participation in the 50 elections held that day, with nearly 25% of registered voters in those areas casting a ballot and 99% of those by mail. That mailing cost $600,000.

“The vast majority of voters across the political spectrum want the option to vote by mail,” Benson said. “Mailing applications to all registered voters is one of the ways that we are ensuring Michigan’s elections will continue to be safe, accurate and secure.”

The question of whether every voter should be mailed an absentee ballot application has been one that largely splits along party lines. 

Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes told The Detroit News on Friday that the party "would love a vote-by-mail election."

"We were already building toward an aggressive program to get folks to vote by mail," Barnes said. 

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox last week said the party did not feel the extra mailings were necessary, even in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We need to follow election law, and we believe that if people can go to the grocery store and stand in line then people can stand in line and vote," Cox said in a Thursday call with press. 

Republicans say Democrats are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to press for a wish list of election changes that have nothing to do with the pandemic.

“The RNC does not want to see any voter disenfranchised. We do not,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told reporters on a Monday call. “We want every voter who is legally able to vote to be able to vote.”

But she said a national vote-by-mail system would open the door to problems such as potential election fraud and "ballot harvesting," with activists collecting “thousands” of mail-in absentee ballots that others have cast and submitting them in groups. 

“In this time of uncertainty, we need to have faith in our election process,” she said. 

“Imposing a new system on the states just months out from the election when they are totally unprepared to take on such a massive shift will result in significant problems in November,” McDaniel said.

The RNC opposes sending ballots to every registered voter in part because some of them will go to inactive voters no longer living at the addresses that officials have on file. 

McDaniel gave the example of Nevada’s Clark County, where she said the clerk mailed ballots out and included inactive voters.

"What we've seen in Nevada is a deluge of ballots littering apartment buildings across the county, in Clark County specifically, where the clerk has decided to send ballots to inactive voters. That obviously leaves room for fraud," she said.

She said to safeguard against fraud, a voter should actually request an absentee ballot, rather than just automatically sending a ballot to the voter.

McDaniel also suggested voters who might want to vote in person could be denied that opportunity and that, in the era of social distancing, “ballot harvesters” could jeopardize others' health by going to homes to collect ballots.

“We need to trust voters to decide how they want to vote and give every voter the opportunity to do so,” she said.

President Donald Trump has has also claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud.

But experts say incidents of voter fraud are rare, particularly in national elections, and that alleged instances of fraud are often errors by voters or election officials.

McDaniel said the RNC has doubled its legal budget to $20 million in part to respond to legal actions that Democrats have filed in various jurisdictions to expand mail-in voting and other measures. 

Republicans are also going on the offense. In California, the Republican Party has sued state officials to challenge the practice of "ballot harvesting."

In Nevada, a conservative group has sued the secretary of state over plans for a mail-in primary in June.