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Benson wants $40M from feds to hold election during COVID-19

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told federal lawmakers Wednesday that the $11.2 million in CARES Act Funding appropriated to Michigan for election challenges posed by the coronavirus is not enough. 

Benson told the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary that she still needs roughly $40 million more to adjust election procedures in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Democracy can and will survive this pandemic, but we need your ongoing help," the Detroit Democrat said. 

The testimony comes nearly two weeks after President Donald Trump threatened Michigan funding over Benson's decision to mail absentee ballot applications to qualified Michigan voters ahead of the August and November elections. The state already allows voters to cast ballots by mail for any reason.

Benson announced Tuesday that she will mail all of Michigan's 7.7 million voters an absentee voter application, an effort first employed in the May 5 election to curb in-person voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The first-term 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 Wednesday hearing, J. Christian Adams, president and general counsel for Public Interest Legal Foundation, criticized plans for widespread mail-in voting. Adams said federal records showed thousands of  mailed ballots in recent years have been rejected for defects or gone missing. 

"We found numerous failures in election administration, and we know from federal data that voting by mail is the most vulnerable form of voting,” he said. “The United States is not ready for an emergency national vote by mail scenario for 2020.”

Michigan voters showed support for mail-in voting when they passed Proposal 3 in 2018, allowing no-reason absentee voting in Michigan elections, Benson told lawmakers in defense of her decision to mail absentee applications.

"Voters need clear choices on how to vote this year and states need clear guidance and support in providing those choices," she said. "That need is particularly acute in cities in Michigan like Flint (and) Detroit."

On Wednesday, Benson pointed to the May 5 local elections as a sign of success since those voters also were mailed absentee ballot applications.

The mailed absentee ballot applications for the August and November elections will allow the state to clear some of its outdated voter information as people return ballots noting the person is deceased or no longer living at the address where the application was mailed, she said. 

Benson rejected assertions that a primarily vote-by-mail election would lead to voter fraud, ballot harvesting or counterfeit ballots sent by foreign governments. 

"To me, that more strikes to what is a bigger issue facing our elections and our electorate this year, which is the effort to sow seeds of doubt in the integrity of the process and in that way harm voters’ confidence in the elections and in their results," the secretary of state said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com