Benson proposes mailing ballot applications in future elections

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson proposed Monday sending absentee ballot applications to voters in future elections after a 2020 mailing, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, drew the ire of Republicans.

Benson, a Detroit Democrat and the state's top election official, unveiled a wide-ranging plan for changing voting laws during a virtual press conference. She wants lawmakers to give local clerks two extra weeks to process absentee ballots, make Election Day a state holiday and require ballots postmarked by Election Day be counted. She also suggested a statewide risk-limiting audit take place prior to the state's certification of results.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at a virtual press conference on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021.

Among her other ideas is requiring that absentee ballot applications be mailed to registered voters ahead of "every federal election cycle," meaning every two years.

“Michigan voters want elections to be accessible, strong and secure," Benson said in a press release. She added, "Our job now is clear: to defend and protect democracy by ensuring that no matter how one votes, who they vote for, where they live, or what they look like, their vote will be counted."

In May, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck Michigan, Benson announced her office would send absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million registered voters for the presidential election.

Some Republicans, including then-President Donald Trump, slammed the decision and contended the secretary of state had exceeded her authority and the mailing opened the door to potential fraud.

However, courts in Michigan upheld the move. State Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens ruled in August that Benson had the power to issue the applications because she outranked "those local election officials over whom she has supervisory control." In September, a state Court of Appeals panel upheld Stephens' ruling 2-1, noting Benson had "inherent" authority to mail the applications. 

In a Monday interview, Benson said her proposal to mail out applications in future elections is an example of normalizing things that worked in the 2020 election. She would also support local clerks sending out applications, she said.

Asked if she would send out applications again in a future election without legislative approval, Benson replied, "I think my authority to do so is clear."

A record 3.3 million absentee votes were cast in Michigan's Nov. 3 election.

Republican lawmakers are pursuing their own idea for voting changes. Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, who chaired the House Oversight Committee last term, suggested Monday a ban on secretaries of state sending out "unsolicited" absentee ballot applications.

State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, is the former chairman of the Michigan House Oversight Committee.

Only local clerks should be able to send out the applications, Hall wrote in a letter to the new House Oversight chairman, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, and new House Elections Chairwoman Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township.

He also called for implementing signature verification guidelines, updating the state's qualified voter file and requiring that cameras monitor ballot drop boxes.

"The people of Michigan must have confidence in our elections process because it’s the foundation that keeps our country strong," Hall said. "With continued oversight and election reform, we can and will improve Michigan’s electoral process, preserve integrity and give voters confidence in future elections."

The secretary of state's other ideas include mandating ballots postmarked by Election Day and received shortly after be counted would allow late-arriving ballots to be tallied. Currently, Michigan’s election clerks only count ballots that they receive at their offices or in their official ballot drop boxes by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The United Auto Workers union pioneered the idea of making Election Day a paid holiday in its 1999 contracts with the Detroit automakers. The move angered then Republican Gov. John Engler, who told the New York Times it was "The biggest corporate contribution in American political history because the corporations will be paying the wages and the UAW will be using the manpower to attempt to defeat Republican candidates.''

While some of her proposals, like mailing applications each cycle, will meet resistance in the GOP-controlled Legislature, Benson could find common ground with Republicans on allowing local clerks two weeks to process absentee ballots ahead of Election Day.

For the Nov. 3 vote, the Legislature only allowed clerks in large municipalities to begin working with absentee ballot envelopes — without counting them — from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the day before the election. Due to the lack of early processing time, the state's ballots weren't fully tabulated until more than a day after polls closed.

Peggy Marentette puts absentee ballots through a machine that opens the envelopes.  Absentee ballots are counted at the Madison Heights City Center in Madison Heights, Mich. on Nov. 3, 2020.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has listed processing and counting ballots before Election Day as one of the areas he wants to review this year. He pointed to Florida as a "best practice." That state allows local clerks to begin processing absentee ballots weeks before Election Day.

On Monday, Benson also proposed prohibiting deceptive election practices that deter or mislead voters, banning the open carry of firearms within 100 feet of a voting location and mandating training standards for election challengers and election workers.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.