Benson: 500,000 could be removed from Michigan's voting rolls, but not before Nov. 3

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Roughly 500,000 absentee ballot applications were returned between May and August for reasons that included the individuals had since died or moved, but any outdated names can't be removed from voter rolls until after the Nov. 3 election, according to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office. 

In a Thursday letter to Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, Benson said the Michigan Bureau of Elections will sort through the returned applications and distribute them to local clerks for voter list maintenance. 

Benson has been criticized for the May mailing to 7.7 million qualified voters in Michigan because some applications went to people who had long since moved or died. But the Detroit Democrat has maintained in the months after the mailing that the returned applications would help to guide efforts to clean up the state's voter rolls of transient or deceased individuals still on the state lists. 

"We expect the majority of maintenance will take place after the Nov. 3 election, when federal law no longer limits such action," she said, referring to federal election law preventing list maintenance 90 days before an election.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson plans to mail postcards over the next week to 4.4 million registered active voters who have not yet requested an absentee ballot to remind them they have the opportunity to do so.

The applications were returned for "any reason postal mail is returned to sender," including the individual is dead or moved, said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for Benson's office.

Former Secretary of State Johnson on Wednesday estimated there likely were another 300,000 absentee ballot applications sent to people who are dead or moved that were not returned to the Bureau of Elections. 

Johnson has argued Benson should not have sent applications to people on the "inactive" or "countdown" list — a list of people believed to have moved but required by federal law to stay on the Qualified Voter File for at least two federal election cycles to verify their departure from the state. At the least, the Republican lawmaker said, those individuals should have been sent postcards instead of the actual ballot application.

"It’s always been a weakness in the system, but I’m afraid that the weakness has gone from something minor to people feeling encouraged to vote from other states," Johnson said.

On Aug. 17, Johnson requested Benson conduct an audit of the primary election to determine how many people listed as having moved in the "countdown" file had successfully voted from another state.

Benson's legislative policy director Adam Reames responded via email shortly after 7 p.m. Friday and argued people on the countdown list remain eligible to vote. He said signatures on the absentee ballot envelopes already had been verified by local clerks. 

"We are not clear what type of audit the Senator is suggesting," Reames wrote. 

Johnson argued Wednesday that the integrity of the November election would be best served by an audit of the August primary. 

"She’s opening a Pandora’s box for whatever side loses to go to court," the former secretary of state said of the November election.

"Ultimately, the people of Michigan are going to be disenfranchised. We’re going to end up in court and there’s just no reason for it."

Benson's office on Wednesday maintained it was her mailing and other education efforts that ensured record turnout in August and what is expected to be another high turnout in November.

"If state Sen. Johnson was truly concerned about disenfranchising voters, instead of squabbling over the court-approved application mailing to voters, she would be actively working to prevent the disenfranchisement of the thousands of Michigan citizens who will suffer that fate in November because, unlike in other states, our Legislature does not allow ballots postmarked by Election Day but arriving after to be counted," said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson.

The first-term secretary of state plans to mail postcards over the next week to 4.4 million registered active voters who have not yet requested an absentee ballot to remind them they have the opportunity to do so. Benson will also mail letters to 700,000 people who have a state driver's license or state ID but haven't registered to vote in Michigan and encourage them to register, the secretary said Wednesday.

Roughly 130,000 of those people will be automatically registered to vote unless they opt out within 30 days of receiving a postcard, Benson said in a statement. The individuals visited the Secretary of State's office for a driver's license or state ID transaction between December 2018 and September 2019, between the passage of automatic voter registration under Proposal 3 and its actual implementation. 

In her letter to Johnson and the Senate Elections Committee, Benson urged lawmakers to allow clerks to begin processing ballots early ahead of Nov. 3. She noted the decrease in election workers and increase in absentee ballots could mean worker fatigue and real delays in delivering election results. 

Benson also asked the committee to consider legislation that would require clerks to call the voter if there were problems with an absentee ballot signature and accept ballots received after Election Day. 

In the Aug. 4 primary, 2,225 absentee ballots were rejected because of missing or mismatched signatures and 6,405 ballots were rejected because they arrived after Election Day. The Aug. 4 primary included a record 2.5 million votes, 1.6 million of which were cast via absentee ballot.

Additionally, about 1,111 were rejected because the voter moved between when they filled out the ballot and Election Day; and 846 were not accepted because the voter died between filling out the ballot and Election Day, according to data from Benson's office. 

"My office looks forward to supporting the committee with any data needed to advance the legislation outlined above," Benson wrote.