Michigan announcement voters will receive vote by mail applications could face legal challenge

Per her official website, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced today that all registered voters in Michigan will receive an application to vote by mail in the August and November elections.

“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” said Benson. “Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe, and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”

Per DetroitFreePress, Benson could face a legal challenge, despite the fact that she and some local clerks sent out unsolicited absentee ballots to voters for the May 5 local elections.

While Michigan changed its rules two years ago to allow anyone to vote by absentee ballot for any reason — a change which helped increase absentee voting in the March 10 presidential primary from 18% four years ago to 38% this year — it’s possible an argument may be made the May 5 election was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order to contain it.

It’s not at all clear that, come August or November, the threat may be as pronounced or that Whitmer’s orders, which are being challenged in court, will still be in place. As recently as Monday Whitmer moved to allow some retails businesses, including bars and restaurants in northern Michigan, to begin opening with restrictions this Friday because cases weren’t as severe there.

Also, is it possible opponents of such a move could try to use past legal decisions, like a 2008 Michigan Court of Appeals decision involving the Macomb County clerk, that ruled against her sending absentee ballot applications to every voter over the age of 60.

While that ruling centered on a local clerk, not the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, it did say that part of the reason she could not send the ballot applications was because election law is expressly under the Legislature’s control and “the power to mail unsolicited ballot applications to qualified voters is not expressly stated anywhere in (the) statute.”

Benson said there was no reason not to send applications to every Michigan voter, giving them the ability to vote by mail. “Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe and secure,” she said, “and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”

A Michigan group, Voters Not Politicians, which advocates for increased voter participation, said while Benson’s action helps, it would prefer the Republican-controlled state Legislature go even further.

“The Legislature has the power to authorize sending absentee ballots – not applications – to voters,” said Nancy Wang, the group’s executive director. “Automatically sending ballots with pre-paid return postage will cut the red tape, save money and empower all Michiganders to vote safely in this year’s elections.” endnu

Sending an application doesn’t guarantee a ballot, but encourages people to vote

Sending people absentee ballot applications doesn’t automatically guarantee them a ballot: They still would have to fill out the application — which is also available for download at www.Michigan.gov/Vote — and either stamp and mail it to their clerk, drop it off, or take a photo of it and email it to their local clerk’s office.

Benson said when applications are sent to voters they will include contact information for the local clerk.

According to Benson, about 1.3 million voters are already on permanent absent voter list, meaning their local election clerks mail them applications ahead of every election.

Additionally, she said some jurisdictions are already mailing applications to all local registered voters. She said by ensuring that all other remaining voters receive an application, it will save people from having to go in to their clerk’s office and ask for one. If a person goes in person to fill out an absentee ballot application, he or she is required to show a photo ID or sign an affidavit as to his or her identity in order to leave with a ballot — which is not required for mailed or dropped-off applications.

“We appreciate that some clerks are proactively protecting public health by mailing applications to all their registered voters, and we are fulfilling our responsibility to provide all voters equal access,” Benson said.

Under state law, clerks check the signature on the application with the one in the voter file and, if they match, issue an absentee ballot, sending it to the voter. Applications for ballots to be sent by mail to the voter must be received by the local clerk’s office by 5 p.m. the Friday before the election.

Benson said people could also go to www.Michigan.gov/Vote and register to be on the permanent absent voter list, so they always have the option to vote by mail.

“The vast majority of voters across the political spectrum want the option to vote by mail,” she said. “Mailing applications to all registered voters is one of the ways that we are ensuring Michigan’s elections will continue to be safe, accurate and secure.”