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One of Michigan's largest cities makes absentee voting easier for November

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

With debate over mail-in voting swirling, one of Michigan's largest cities, in a swing county with a Republican mayor, is taking steps to make the process easier for its residents in November.

Sterling Heights, the fourth-largest city in the state and the second-largest in Macomb County, has allocated $25,000 to fund return postage on its residents' absentee ballots this fall. The city also plans to set up secure boxes at fire stations so people can drop off their absentee ballots without having to mail them.

The city's mayor, Michael Taylor, said with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, Sterling Heights doesn't know what to expect in November, and he wants to do everything he can to make voting easier.

As for others who are criticizing mail-in voting and saying it will lead to fraud, Taylor, who voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in the March Democratic presidential primary, dismissed the criticism.

“My response would be to stop listening to Donald Trump," Taylor said. "Have an independent thought and do what’s best for the voters and the residents.”

​This is an example of what the envelope carrying absentee ballots looked like for March's presidential primary election. (Photo: Barb Byrum / Ingham County clerk)

Trump has repeatedly blasted efforts to expand voting by mail during the pandemic. On May 26, he tweeted, without providing evidence to support his claim, that mail-in ballots would be "substantially fraudulent."

Tony Daunt, executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, said it's problematic and unwise for cities like Sterling Heights to pay for return postage on absentee ballots.

Governments are facing budget cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. And under the current system, voters in some communities that cover postage get a leg up on those who have to pay for stamps themselves, he added.

 "It's undermining the purity of elections," Daunt said.

Sterling Heights, which has 133,000 residents, isn't the only city in Michigan that will pick up the tab for return postage on absentee ballots, but it's a new addition to the list. Michigan's largest city, Detroit, has done it for years, city Clerk Janice Winfrey said.

Mayor Michael Taylor said he wants to do everything he can to make voting easier amid a pandemic.

Sterling Heights City Councilman Mike Radtke championed the budget amendment that allocated $25,000 to pay for return postage this fall. City officials estimated it would cost 71 cents per ballot for postage, according to meeting minutes. The amendment passed in a 5-2 vote earlier this month.

Radtke said he wants to encourage people to vote absentee. The city is short about 100 poll workers, many of the current workers are older and could be vulnerable to COVID-19, and it's unclear what's going to happen at polling places, he said.

"To me, voting is a fundamental constitutional right," said Radtke, who also works as a political consultant. "Anything we can do to make voting safer is something everyone should do."

In May, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, announced she would mail all of Michigan’s 7.7 million voters an absentee voter application for the August and November elections. If voters fill out and return the application, they'll receive an absentee ballot.

Benson supports the moves that Sterling Heights is making.

“I applaud them and hope others follow their lead while my office continues working to support and supplement their efforts," she said in a statement.

Republicans have criticized Benson's decision to mail applications to all Michigan voters. A press release Friday from the office of Benson's predecessor as secretary of state, state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, said the mailing has "been plagued by applications sent to individuals who are dead, moved to other states, are noncitizens, or not of legal voting age."

Benson has argued that it’s likely the mass mailing will help the state discover those who have moved or are deceased and begin the process of removing them from the qualified voter file. The secretary of state also says the signature verification process that has long been in place for the ballots and applications prevents voter fraud.

Trump won Macomb County in 2016 on his way to becoming the first Republican presidential nominee to carry Michigan since 1988.

In November 2018, 67% of Michigan voters supported a constitutional amendment to allow for no-reason absentee voting. Previously, most voters had to provide an excuse for why they couldn't vote at their polling places on Election Day in order to cast an absentee ballot.

Nearly 1 million people voted absentee in the state's March 10 presidential primary, doubling the total from the 2016 presidential primary, Benson has said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com