Michigan ballot application mailings to dead people raise Republican hackles

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Some households have received unexpected mailings for deceased voters or since-moved occupants as part of a mass mailing of absentee ballot applications across Michigan — a development that experts and Democrats are defending against Republican criticism. 

The mailings announced May 19 by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson aren't a cause for concern, even if the applications went to deceased individuals or folks no longer living at the residences, experts said. In the long run, they said, the applications could help the state to update its voting rolls.

More:Trump supporters burn Michigan absentee ballot applications

But mostly Republican critics, including GOP former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, are demanding answers about which lists were used to determine absentee ballot application recipients and what security measures are in place to ensure the applications aren't misused. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson holds a press conference at Cadillac Place.

Johnson, now a state senator from Holly who chairs the upper chamber's election committee, is criticizing Benson’s massive ballot application outreach that has led to mailings to dead or moved individuals, even those temporarily listed in an inactive voter file, over concerns they may not be valid voters. 

In an email paid for by the Michigan Republican Party, Johnson asked voters to contact her office if they'd received an application for someone who had since moved or passed away. 

Benson argues that it’s likely the mass mailing will help the state to discover those moved or deceased individuals and begin the process of removing them from the qualified voter file. She also maintains signature verifications that have long been in place for the ballots and applications prevent voter fraud. 

Michigan usually discovers deceased or moved individuals through random mailings throughout the year, spurring their eventual removal from the qualified voter file, experts said. But the May mailing of absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million Michigan registered voters has concentrated those discoveries to a span of a few weeks.  

The mailings are unlikely to lead to any systemic voter fraud, Democrats and election experts said. 

“This happens literally every day, but you just don’t see it because it’s a dozen people,” said Adrian Hemond,  a Democratic political consultant at the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest consulting firm. “The unusual thing is that it’s happening all at once.”

The mailings have become the latest battlefield in the swing state that President Donald Trump won in 2016 by a razor-thin margin. Benson is pursuing this unprecedented effort to reduce in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of a 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative that included expanded no-reason absentee voting. 

Benson has promoted the mailing by noting it presented a way to avoid the long lines that were seen last week in Georgia and Nevada polling locations. 

“Reading through the experiences of friends & allies who tried but couldn’t vote in Georgia yesterday is heartbreaking,” Benson wrote last week on Twitter. “This is precisely why in Michigan we mailed applications to vote by mail to every registered voter as early as legally possible.”

Anti-fraud tool

The Detroit Democrat maintains voter fraud is very difficult given that the signature on the absentee ballot application must be matched to the signature on the qualified voter file and later matched again when an individual submits his or her actual ballot.

Johnson countered that local clerks can’t afford to hire handwriting experts to figure out which absentee ballot application signatures match signatures on record and which don’t. The signature verification technique was in place during Johnson's eight years in office, but she noted it was before the voter-approved no-reason absentee voting created a huge uptick in the number of people voting absentee. 

“I don’t think the checks and balances are there when you're sending absentee ballot application requests to people that really don’t exist,” Johnson said. 

People looking to trick the system not only run up against signature verification, but also face the potential of criminal charges, Benson spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said. Forging a signature is a crime and “rarely attempted,” Wimmer said. 

“The mailing of applications by the government this election does not make it easier than usual to commit such a crime, as the applications are also mailed by both political parties and many other organizations ahead of most elections,” she said. “For years, the application form has also been freely available online for download.”

Ruth Johnson

People who receive a ballot application that doesn’t belong to them can mark the ballot as belonging to someone who has “moved” or is “deceased,” Wimmer said.  

“In this way, the statewide mailing of applications will improve the voter list, as election clerks will be able to use mail that has been returned to clean the registration list following the appropriate verification and waiting period,” Wimmer said.

The information on how many ballots were returned with a notice that the individual is “deceased” will not be available until after the November election, Wimmer said. 

In a statewide review of the November 2016 election, the Michigan Election Bureau found that 31 Michigan residents appeared to vote twice — once by absentee ballot and once in person on Election Day. The cases were referred to the Department of Attorney General, but never resulted in criminal charges. 

Cleaning the lists

In 2006, Republican former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land sent “Help America Vote” postcards to all registered voter to help them understand assisted voting options, said Chris Thomas, a former state elections director. When 900,000 post cards were returned as undeliverable, Land used that number to determine whether the person was deceased, didn’t have a mailbox or had moved, he said. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson mailed out absentee ballot applications to all of the state's 7.7 million registered voters during May and June 2020.

In all, 250,000 voters were sent cancellation notices and placed on the inactive list for two federal election cycles, Thomas said. 

The inactive voter file consists of voters who have not voted in six years or people who are presumed to have moved and are sent notices of cancellations, Thomas said. All of those names have to stay in the file for at least two federal election cycles before they are removed, according to the National Voting Rights Act. 

Individuals on the inactive voter file also received absentee ballot applications from Benson, a practice that concerned Johnson. 

“Sending out absentee ballot requests to what appears to be tens of thousands of people who don’t exist is just not good business if you really want integrity in the system,” she said.

But many nonprofits and political parties have mailed ballot applications to residents for years, with Republicans gaining prominence for doing so in the 1980s, Thomas said. They’re also available to download online.

“I received four applications in the (March) presidential primary from the Republican Party,” Thomas said. “I’m not a member of their party, but that’s fine. I can use it or not.

“There’s nothing sacrosanct about an application. Anybody can get an application.”

Michigan has some of the cleanest voting rolls in the country because vehicle registration and elections fall under the control of the secretary of state, said David Becker, executive director for the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based Center for Election Innovation and Research. Should someone change their address on their license, that change is easily incorporated into the voting database, he said. 

The state’s recent membership in the Electronic Registration Information Center allows it to coordinate voter information with other states as well. 

Crush of requests

Westland Clerk Richard LeBlanc said he’s received daily notices from voters who received applications for past occupants at their address. The mailings have created problems within the Democratic former lawmaker’s office since Benson sent them with no notice to local clerks. 

Michigan's new no-reason absentee voting option is expected to increase the use of absentee voting but could diminish the state's significance in the March presidential primary.

“It has created so much additional work,” LeBlanc said. “It is consuming so much additional resources. It was not planned for. … Our absentee responsibility will increase exponentially, but our precinct responsibilities won’t decrease at all.”

LeBlanc said he’s been receiving several hundred emails a day with photos of voters' signed absentee ballot applications. Sometimes the photo is clear enough for staff to scan the QR code on the document and register the person to receive an absentee ballot, he said, but more times than not the photo is grainy and staff have to look the person up in the qualified voter file to mark his or her request for a ballot. 

The ability to email a photo of an absentee ballot requests isn’t a new concept, LeBlanc said, but receiving hundreds of those requests a day is.

On June 4, the emails and attachments overburdened the city of Westland's email system so much that all city emails stopped working through 1 p.m.

Lansing Clerk Chris Swope anticipates there will be an added workload and plenty of questions from folks receiving applications for deceased individuals or people who have since moved. While he said he hopes the Legislature will step in with a policy to make the absentee process easier, the expected increase in voter access is worth the effort even without legislative changes. 

"I want to give everybody the opportunity to vote," Swope said. "I’m willing to take that risk." 

LeBlanc said he gets about one message a day seeking guidance on what to do with a ballot application mailed to a deceased person but far more calls come in about individuals who have moved from the area. One person called last Monday asking how he received a ballot when he had officially removed himself from any voter registration. 

“For some people, it’s caused them to question the process,” LeBlanc said. “How do I know the election is secure? What I tell them is to the extent we’re involved the elections are safe and secure.”

While Hemond expected complaints about mail-in voter issues to continue, he didn’t expect them to be successful after Michigan voters witnessed the long lines in Georgia and Nevada earlier this week. 

“For a lot of people," Hemond said, "that argument’s just not going to hold a lot of water right now."