Use personal ID info to verify absentee ballot requests, Michigan Senate GOP urges

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Senate Republicans unveiled a plan Wednesday that would require voters seeking absentee ballots to submit personal identifying information, like their driver's license number, or a copy of ID to vote through the mail.

The proposed policy marks a change from what the Senate GOP initially advanced in March as part of a 39-bill package to overhaul the state's voting laws, in which lawmakers wanted to require those seeking absentee ballots to present ID or attach a copy to their application.

Under the altered version of the proposal, debated in committee Wednesday, absentee ballot applicants would have to include their driver's license number, the last four digits of their Social Security number, their official state identification number or submit a copy of identification.

Election inspectors Madison Meadows counts absentee ballots as June Heath, left, both of Warren, records ballots in the atrium of Warren City Hall as poll election challengers oversee the process, Tuesday morning, November 3, 2020.

The bill would fix a "glaring loophole" in Michigan's process for voting through the mail, said Meghan Reckling, chief of staff for Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, who sponsored the measure.

"It is now possible for an individual to register to vote, apply for a ballot, receive the ballot, fill it out and send it back without ever seeing the inside of a clerk's office or a voting location," Reckling said. "There is no doubt that requiring identification verification is critical to ensuring the integrity of the election process moving forward."

Opponents of the bill have argued that sending a copy of ID through the mail creates security risks and the push to change the law is based on conspiracy theories about the 2020 elections. They also said the current process, which relies on the submission of personal identifying information to register to vote and verifying signatures for absentee ballots, has been successful in preventing fraud.

"We think the system that we have now works well," said Adam Reames, legislative policy director for Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

The identification debate has been part of a national push among GOP lawmakers in multiple states to change voting laws after former President Donald Trump's loss in the 2020 election. Trump and his supporters have levied unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in battleground states' elections.

Trump lost Michigan by about 154,000 votes, or 3 percentage points, to Democrat Joe Biden. Court rulings, legislative inquiries and audits have not called the result into question.

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, serves Michigan's 22nd State Senate District.

But GOP lawmakers have contended that concerns about the election show the need for action to overhaul voting laws. Michigan Senate Republicans unveiled their initial plan on March 24. They said their bills would ensure integrity and "restore trust" in the voting process.

Among the most controversial bills in the package are proposals to bar the secretary of state from sending out absentee ballot applications unless voters request them and to change how canvassing boards operate in large counties.

Wednesday brought the sixth public hearing on the legislation. A portion of the meeting focused on the identification requirements for absentee ballots.

The subject has found the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic. Benson, a Democrat, sent absentee ballot applications to all Michigan voters ahead of the 2020 election, and a record 3.3 million residents voted by absentee ballot in November

Currently, those who apply for absentee ballots through the mail submit a form with a signature and must certify that their application is accurate. Signatures submitted with their absentee ballots are also verified against signatures in the state's qualified voter file.

But Republican lawmakers said the requirements for voting by mail should more closely mirror those for voting in person. To vote in person, Michiganians must either present an ID or sign an affidavit stating that they are not in possession of ID.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said there are differing thresholds for voting by mail and voting in person. One must come up to match the other or one must come down, he said.

"You either support photo ID or some additional level of security ... as other states are doing to go along with that signature or you don't support any of those and signatures are good enough for everybody," McBroom said in pressing Reames from Benson's office.

Under the new version of the Senate GOP bill, people who don't provide identifying information or a copy of ID would have to use a provisional ballot, meaning they would have to submit the information later for their vote to be counted.

Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, another Democrat, criticized the latest version of the proposal, saying it could expose voters to identity theft. Such scams often target seniors, and the population ages 50 and over cast 64% of the 3.3 million absentee ballots in November, a statement from the two officials said.

"Even with the latest substitute, voters are asked to open themselves up for identity theft by mailing certain personal information to secure an absentee ballot," Nessel said. "The bill is looking to solve a problem that doesn't exist and instead puts forth an obstacle that asks Michigan voters to make themselves vulnerable in order to vote."

The election bills would still have to be voted on by the Senate and House and signed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to become law.

cmauger@detroitnews.com