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Benson tells Democratic convention: Trump votes by mail

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's top election official, touted voting by mail at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night as the party stressed the need this fall to protect voting rights.

"Republicans and Democrats agree it is safe," Benson said during a segment in which she spoke along side Alex Padilla, California's secretary of state.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at Democratic National Convention on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.

“There is absolutely zero difference between voting by mail and voting absentee," Benson said at another point, referencing Republican President Donald Trump's arguments that there are differences between voting absentee and widespread voting by mail.

"Millions of Americans have been voting absentee for decades," Benson said. "Donald Trump, his family, his staff, they all vote by mail."

Benson's remarks came amid a national debate over mail-in voting and the Postal Service during the COVID-19 pandemic and on the same day the window for requesting absentee ballots in Michigan opened for the critical Nov. 3 election.

They also came a few days after Postal Service union leaders in Michigan raised concerns about cost-cutting policy changes and the removal of mail sorting machines from facilities in Detroit, Pontiac and Grand Rapids. 

Michigan voters can apply for an absentee ballot by filling out an online form at Michigan.gov/vote. The Secretary of State's Office recommends that voters apply for their ballots as soon as possible. After Oct. 19, voters are advised to go to their local clerk's office where they can receive their ballot.

The Benson speech also came on the same week that a Wayne County canvassing board asked her office to investigate vote counting irregularities in Detroit that included recorded ballot counts in 72% of the city's absentee voting precincts failing to match the number of ballots cast. 

The situation promises to amplify the spotlight on absentee ballots in Michigan ahead of an election for which record levels of mail-in voting are expected and Trump is already raising concerns about how votes will be handled.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers requested a probe as well as the selection of a monitor to oversee Detroit's absentee vote counting during the Nov. 3 election.

Ahead of Thursday night's convention programming, Biden supporters in Michigan held a "vote by mail" virtual rally that featured U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.

In Michigan's Aug. 4 primary, a record 1.6 million people voted absentee, a total that exceeded Michigan's prior record of 1.27 million absentee ballots cast in the November 2016 presidential election. It also set a primary turnout record with 2.5 million voters.

"We need to blow the walls off these records in this general election," Gilchrist said Thursday night.

But Trump has criticized efforts to expand mail-voting this year. In May, he specifically targeted Benson, a Detroit Democrat who was first elected in 2018, after she announced she would send absentee voter applications to all registered voters in the state.

Trump tweeted, "This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!"

Trump has repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud, although experts say incidents of voter fraud are rare, particularly in national elections.

"Mail-in ballots are very dangerous. There's tremendous fraud involved and tremendous illegality," he said. 

Benson has said she's focused on educating Michigan residents about their right to vote absentee for no reason after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018. The amendment passed with 67% support.

The secretary of state has said her decision to send absentee ballot applications to every registered voter fulfills  the “responsibility to provide all voters equal access."

The Michigan Republican Party slammed Benson in a statement.

"Jocelyn Benson is the most partisan Secretary of State in the nation," said Laura Cox, the party's chairwoman. "From trying to redraw our state’s legislative districts two years early, to undermining voter security measures, or unilaterally trying to move our state to mail-in voting, Benson has taken every opportunity to destabilize our election system and play politics in Michigan."

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed

cmauger@detroitnews.com