Voting Up North
Absentee voting is on the rise. We cut through the hooey to bring you the how-to.
By Todd VanSickle | Sept. 5, 2020
On a warm, muggy August afternoon, Donald Hager, 93 years old, sat at his kitchen table with his wife Elaine, 91, trying to recall the first president he had voted for.
“It is whoever ran against [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt,” Donald said, with a chuckle. “I think it was Dewey, but I can’t remember.”
Over the years, Donald and Elaine have consistently voted for Republican candidates with only a few exceptions: John F. Kennedy and Walter Mondale.
“I voted Democrat once,” Donald said. “Mondale was a war veteran, but he lost by a landslide.”
This year will not be an exception for the Clearwater Township residents, who will vote like they always have — in person, at the polls on Election Day (and as mostly usual, for Republicans).
“As far as I am concerned, there is too much chance for fraud with that mail-in ballot,” Donald said, who had already received his application for a ballot but discarded it. Prior to voting, he admits he doesn’t know all the candidates running for office but prefers to look at the ballot at the polls on Election Day.
“That way I only have to think about it once a year,” he said, who votes during the middle of the day to avoid waiting in a long line. “I don't even trust the machines. I think we should go back to the paper ballots with a garbage can with a slot in it.”
In 2018, Michigan voters adopted Proposal 3, which allowed no-excuse absentee voting. As the COVID-19 pandemic to hold, a record number applied to vote by absentee ballot for the August primary. Of those voters, 1.6 million were absentee ballots, which toppled the previous record of 1.27 million absentee ballots cast in the November 2016 presidential election.
To date, more than 2.4 million Michigan voters have already requested to vote by mail in November and that number is expected to grow.
In recent months, mail-in ballots have generated skepticism, especially from the United States President Donald Trump, who, on the contrary, requested an absentee ballot in August for the presidential election.
Slowdowns in the United States Postal Service have also raised concerns over voter suppression, while lawsuits have been filed in Michigan challenging the mail-in voting process. Meanwhile, election officials have been working overtime to safeguard the sanctity of absentee voting, which stems as far back as the 1864 election.
Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele said voters will receive their ballots from their city and township clerks after they have requested one from them through a written or online application.
“We expect to have more people voting absentee than we have in the past due to Proposal 3,” Scheele said, who added that Oct. 30 is the last day a voter can request a ballot by mail. “As far as the issues they've been having with the post office lately, I don't know if that's going to come into play for November, so that's why I would encourage people to just drop it off in person if they're afraid that it might not make it in the mail in time.”
Scheele added that the clerks’ drop boxes are secure, and voters should be assured that the process is safe. The township and city clerks will be manning their absentee county boards with more people to make sure that they can get all the work done in a timely manner because no ballot is opened until election day.
“In Michigan, there is a lot of checks and balances,” Scheele said. “The local clerks have to check the application signature against the signature on their master voter registration. Then, when the ballot comes back, they have to check the signature again. If there’s any question, they actually contact the voter and say, ‘Hey, did something happen that your signature would change?’ Once they have [the ballots] in their possession the clerk locks them up, so I know they're fine. And then, on the day of the election, they bring them to the absentee polling precinct, and those people take an oath and start processing them. I think absentee ballots are very secure and safe in Michigan.”
Suzanne Mahan has been the clerk for Forest Home Township in Antrim County for the past 20 years. She said the increase of absentee voters has made her job more demanding.
“There is a lot of pressure on the clerks. At least I'm feeling it,” Mahan said, who makes copies of all the applications. “I have something as a backup. … It's way more work than it was 20 years ago, that's for sure.”
The state has been encouraging voters to vote by mail since the August primary. Clerks must begin mailing requested November ballots to voters 40 days before the election on September 24. The mailing will be paid for with federal funding and will cost about $1.4 million, or 32 cents per voter.
Due to an expected increase of absentee voters, the Bureau of Elections will allocate an additional $5.5 million to support voters and clerks:
• $2 million to reimburse jurisdictions that pay postage on ballot return envelopes.
• $1.5 million to jurisdictions that order ballot envelopes redesigned to the standards of the USPS to be most effectively and efficiently processed through the mail.
• $1 million more for jurisdictions to buy ballot drop boxes, automatic letter openers, and other equipment.
• $1 million more in matching funds for jurisdictions to buy ballot tabulators, including high-speed scanners.
Mahan would like to see voters apply early to help streamline the process. She added that a lot of voters have already applied early and checked the permanent absentee voter box on the application during the August primary.
Voters can go online and request a ballot at www.michigan.gov/Vote or download an application and print it out and mail it or dropped it off at the township clerk.
Once a ballot application is submitted, voters can expect their ballot by late September, when clerks will start mailing them by Sept. 24.
FAITH & DOUBT
Kathleen Early, a Kalkaska resident, worries that if she requests her ballot by mail there is a possibility that she won’t receive it in time for the election due to the ongoing dismantling of sorting machines and removal of mailboxes by the US. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who was appointed by the president on June 20 and is a mega-donor to the Trump campaign.
“Sometimes it is hard for me to leave work to vote,” Early said, who has received three ballot applications so far. “I considered a mail-in ballot, but I am not sure with everything that is going on with the post office.”
Mahan said she is confident that mail-in ballots will reach voters in time for the election.
“I think it is a bunch of hooey,” the Forest Home Township clerk said. “We didn't have a huge issue with it in August, and it was brand new then.”
Mahan added that she starts the process early so when the ballots arrive by mid-September, all she has to do is “just drop them in the envelopes and send them out immediately,” the clerk said.
Grand Rapids USPS Customer Relations specialist Sabrina Todd said the post office is doing everything to ensure election mail is delivered in a timely manner.
“We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all election mail, including ballots,” according to a USPS statement. “This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local and state levels. As we anticipate that many voters may choose to use the mail to participate in the upcoming elections due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are conducting and will continue to proactively conduct outreach with state and local election officials and Secretaries of State so that they can make informed decisions and educate the public about what they can expect when using the mail to vote.”
As part of the outreach efforts, USPS plans to discuss its delivery processes and consult with election officials about how they can design their mailings in a manner that align with postal regulations, improve mail visibility, and ensure efficient and cost-effective processing and delivery, according to a USPS statement.
SO WHAT CAN VOTERS DO?
The USPS suggests voters review their jurisdiction’s requirements for timely submission of absentee ballots, including postmarking requirements. The USPS recommends that jurisdictions immediately communicate and advise voters to request ballots at the earliest point allowable, but no later than 15 days prior to the election date. The USPS also recommends that domestic, non-military voters mail their ballots at least one week prior to their state’s due date to allow for timely receipt by election officials.
The postal delays have become a life and death reality for Vietnam Army nurse veteran Jan Stowe, who gets her medication, a class one narcotic, from the Saginaw Veteran Affairs. The 74-year-old has to take the medication for her 12 compressed vertebra and multiple back and neck problems. The medicine has to be ordered seven days in advance, but in July it took 12 days to arrive, leaving her without her medication for about four days.
“I really started having withdrawal symptoms,” Stowe said, who lives in northern Michigan. “And there was nothing I could do about it. … These delays in the postal service delivery of medication are very, very, very dangerous.”
Due to the postal delays, she also has concerns about voting by mail. Stowe describes herself as a “staunch Democrat” who cast her ballot in the August primary by mail but plans to take another route in November.
“I think I'm probably going to drop it off at the clerk's office,” she said. “To slow the mail and voting process in the middle of a pandemic, in my opinion, is absolutely criminal. … With 700 sorting machines that sort 30,000 pieces of mail a day that have been taken out of the postal system, and DeJoy says he’s not putting them back — that's going to cause a further delay. What Trump doesn’t seem to realize is that so many rural elderly people vote by absentee, and they tend to be his supporters. So, in a way, it seems like he is shooting himself in the foot. … I want our democracy back, I want our country back.”
THE SILVER LINING
Gabrielle Bohrer is running as a Democratic candidate for East Bay Township trustee. She has worked with the non-partisan organization Voters not Politicians, which was founded to end gerrymandering in Michigan by putting Proposal 2 on the ballot in 2018.
The group is now focusing on other issues that involve absentee voting through its VoteSafe campaign.
“Right now there has been a huge push for absentee ballots for safety reasons, and it helps turn out the vote,” Bohrer said. “So, the first initiative that we took on there was the clerks. Just being funded enough to have over time, and anything we could do to take the load off the clerks, and obviously the post office thing is happening.
And that's just crazy.”
There are early signs that absentee voting has become a partisan issue. In the August primary, Democratic voters embraced absentee voting over Republicans by about 25 percent in the five most populous counties in Michigan, including Livingston, Oakland, Kent, Ingham, and Wayne, according to the Detroit News.
“I know everything has become partisan, but I think it's for the same reason that masks have become partisan,” Bohrer said. “It's all about wreaking havoc. It's a political strategy to wreak havoc. It's not a great one. It's terrifying, but it is one.”
Republican state senator from District 14 and former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has argued that voter fraud could be afoot after ballot applications were sent to Michigan residents who have moved or are deceased.
However, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has reportedly said checks and balances are in place such as the signature verification. Additionally, the mailings will help clean up the voter registration list, she said.
On Aug. 13, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Laura Cox released a statement after Benson said she would be sending a mass mailing encouraging residents to vote from home.
“Yesterday’s announcement is simply the latest move by Jocelyn Benson to move Michigan to an all-mail voting system,” Cox stated. “Yet again, Benson will be picking and choosing who receives these postcards, and what localities will get ‘free’ return postage. If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for picking voters based on partisan advantage, I don’t know what does.”
On Aug. 25, the Michigan Court of Claims dismissed a lawsuit challenging Secretary of State Benson’s decision to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter for the August and November elections.
“Every citizen in Michigan has a right to vote by mail. Period,” Benson posted on her Facebook page. “We must be vigilant against any and all actions by leaders at the United States Postal Service or other entities that make it more difficult or impossible for citizens to exercise that right.”
The ruling stated the mailings sent to 7.7 million voters before the August primary did not infringe on the Legislature’s lawmaking authority.
In 2016, 7,514,055 Michigan residents were registered to vote. Sixty-three percent of those voters turned out for the election.
Despite the hurdles election clerks are currently facing with the influx of absentee voters, Mahan is optimistic that over time the mail-in process will improve and get easier.
“We’re going to get a better handle on it,” she said. “We're going to know how much help we need to come in. There are so many absentee requests now, and each one takes a fair amount of time to complete.”
Nevertheless, Mahan believes in-person voting will remain.
“I have a lot of people who like to come in and actually vote in person,” Mahan said. “Some people look at it as a social occasion to see people they haven't seen in a long time. And, they like to be recognized for doing their civic duty. I hope it doesn't become all mail-in ballots.”
*Photo above courtesy of Todd VanSickle.
Three proposals to watch
Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary saw a large increase in absentee voters, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is on a mission to improve the process before the general election, scheduled this year for Tuesday, Nov. 3.
She recently called on Michigan legislators to pass three pending bills that would help streamline mail-in voting for voters and clerks.
“Last week’s primary election was a success in large part because a record-number of voters cast their ballots from home, helping all voters and election workers to stay safe during the pandemic,” said Benson. “To ensure similar success and safety in November, when turnout is expected to double or even triple, voters must know they have the right to vote from home and how to do so. … The only missing piece is action from state lawmakers, who need to do their part to support our elections, clerks and voters.”
The Secretary of State was referring to the following three pending bills:
• SB 757 would allow clerks to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day.
• HB 5987 would allow mailed ballots to count if postmarked by Election Day, even if they arrive up to two days later.
• HB 5991 would require clerks to contact voters if the signature on the absentee ballot does not match the one on their registration.
The bills will now have to face a full senate vote.
5 Tips to Not Screw it Up
1. Apply early for your absentee ballot. Voters have 75 days before the election to apply for a ballot starting August 20.
2. Cast your vote early. Voters have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to complete and return the ballot to the clerk's office.
3. Deliver your completed ballot directly to your local clerk in person, whether by hand or in a secure drop box.
4. Be kind to your ballot. Don’t submit ballots with spills, tears, or bends.
5. Sign the return envelope with your ballot so that your signature matches the one on file.