In this March 5, 2020, file photo, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at a news conference in Lansing on March 5, 2020. Benson said Wednesday, July 29, 2020, that a sharp increase in the number of people voting by mail because of the pandemic could slow vote counting in the August primary and November general election. (AP Photo/David Eggert, File)
By ANNA LIZ NICHOLS Associated Press/Report for America
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A sharp increase in the number of people voting by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic could slow the counting of ballots in Michigan’s August primary and the November general election, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said during a media conference Wednesday. Benson also defended the action her office took to send all registered voters in Michigan absentee ballot applications, a costly endeavor that Republican legislators say could lead to voter fraud.
Nearly 2 million registered voters have requested to vote by mail for the Aug. 4 primary. Just over a million people cast ballots by mail in the 2016 general election. This is after Benson’s office spent $4.5 million of federal funds to mail absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters.
Former Secretary of State Sen. Ruth Johnson, along with other Republicans on the state Senate Elections Committee voiced their concerns over Benson’s actions on Wednesday during a meeting Benson gave testimony.
A number of non-voting individuals, whether it be because they are deceased, moved out of state or some other reason, received absentee ballot applications from Benson’s office.
“To get an absentee ballot application saying the state thinks you’re a qualified voter to people that don’t live here and haven’t lived here for decades, to people that are dead, to people that have moved, to non citizens, I don’t think that that is the best way if you really want secure and fair elections,” Johnson said.
Benson testified that not only did the applications inform and equip voters to vote safely, people informing her office of applications that shouldn’t be sent helped to update the qualified voter registry.
“I believe it’s my responsibility and really it’s all of our responsibility in this time of great uncertainty to give voters the certainty and the clarity that they need on how to exercise their right to vote this year,” Benson said. “In the midst of this pandemic we still have to run elections, we can’t cancel them, we have to move forward.”
Committee members asserted that there were no instructions on the applications to inform residents to send the invalid applications back and a public service announcement about how to vote absentee would have sufficed.
The pandemic and a series of voting rules passed in 2018 aimed at making voting easier have election clerks asking for more time to process what they expect will be a large influx of absentee ballots, Benson said earlier in the day at a media conference.
Under election rules, the counting of absentee ballots can’t begin until 7 a.m. on Election Day. Legislation that would allow clerks to start processing ballots the day before the election is stalled in the Michigan Legislature.
If a package of bills to ease restraints on clerks doesn’t pass by the August primary, results could come two days after Election Day and may take even longer in November.
“This will create undue pressure and stress for our elected officials that is unnecessary, and our officials will have to work through the night, increasing the potential for human error,” Benson said during the media conference. “It also, importantly, creates a lag between when the polls close on election night and when the results are announced that will create a space to enable bad actors to falsely raise questions about the sanctity and security of our elections.”
Eighteen states allow absentee ballots to be counted before Election Day, including Florida where clerks can start 22 days before an election, she said.
The state is providing local election clerks with high-speed ballot tabulators. About 5,000 Election Day workers have been recruited to bolster staff at polls.
“I think we all want to prioritize accuracy over speed,” Benson said. “We’re doing everything we can to get more machines, more people to increase capacity, but we also need to just manage expectations.”
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.”