Opinion | Michigan needs vote-by-mail elections

Walt Sorg was a founding board member of Voters Not Politicians and former board member of the Michigan Election Reform Alliance. (courtesy photo)

It's time to get rid of in-person voting and go to vote-by-mail elections. We’re already nearly halfway there.

Americans began voting by mail during the Civil War: The first absentee voter laws were enacted by both the Union and Confederacy to facilitate voting by soldiers.

A large percentage of us already vote by mail. On May 7, Michigan held its first election in which all people had the option of voting by mail without needing a “valid” reason why they couldn’t go to the polls. All you had to do was fill out a paper application, mail it, get your ballot by return mail, fill it out at the kitchen table, and send it back.

Even before “no reason” absentee voting, a large minority of voters cast their ballots by mail. In my hometown of Lansing, City Clerk Chris Swope (a supporter of mail-in voting) says it is common for more than one-third of all ballots to be via mail. Swope and his fellow local clerks have demonstrated, election after election, they are fully capable of dealing with large numbers of mailed ballots.

Three states have already converted to statewide mail-in voting: Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Their experience: Vote-by-mail elections are neither problematic nor are they more susceptible to fraud.

For starters, each ballot envelope has to be signed by the voter; that signature can be matched to the voter's registration record. If a ballot is received and the signature is questionable, there can be direct contact between the clerk and the voter. This is actually better security than having lightly trained poll workers check voter ID at the polls.

Vote-by-mail saves money. There are about 4,800 voting precincts in Michigan. In a major election it takes about 10 election judges for each precinct at a cost of around $1,500/precinct (roughly $6-to-7-million per election). Vote-by-mail would require a small fraction of those 50,000 or so election workers. It saves more money by eliminating tabulators and computers used at precincts, and ending the cost of transporting voting equipment to those 4,800 precincts.

Vote by mail cannot be hacked. Paper ballots would be processed using counters which are not connected to the Internet; having every vote on paper provides an audit trail for recounts and quality control.

Vote-by-mail would end allegations of voter suppression through such things as too-few precincts, too-few voting booths, or precincts strategically located in the "right" parts of town.

For voters, it would mean the opportunity to cast a more informed vote. Don't know anything about the candidates for State Board of Education, or the impact of that local millage proposal? If you are voting at your dining room table you have the option to seek out more information before casting your vote.

The biggest drawback is “spoiled” ballots, something that is especially a problem in primary elections. According to Swope (who is also former Michigan Municipal Clerks Association president), up to 10 percent of mailed ballots in partisan primaries are spoiled because voters cast votes for candidates of more than one political party.

The most important impact of vote-by-mail for our democracy may be that, combined with Michigan’s automatic voter registration (approved as part of Proposal 3 last year), it likely would substantially increase voter participation in elections.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, who as state representative served on the House Elections Committee, says “it will make our elections even more secure and accessible to voters. No-reason absentee voting through Proposal 3 has opened doors for many more voters to vote before Election Day, however, many are still unaware of elections taking place or how to obtain an absentee voter ballot.”

Statewide vote-by-mail, says Byrum, “would certainly increase participation.”

Elections-by-mail isn't a hypothetical.

It has been thoroughly tested in three states. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson should lead the way to make Michigan the fourth.

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Tue, 06/04/2019 - 7:36am

It probably won't happen. Why? the Michigan legislature does not want more people voting, they like the situation as it is.

Sondra Johnson
Tue, 06/04/2019 - 8:38am

All the more reason to make it happen.

Gary Lea
Tue, 06/04/2019 - 10:26am

Asterisk, asterisk, asterisk...what evidence will verify your claim about the Michigan legislature?

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 1:24pm

Seriously? Have you seen the way the legislature has put up roadblocks on this issue in the past? What makes you think they would do anything different this time around.

Barry Visel
Tue, 06/04/2019 - 9:04am

The analysis on cost savings didn’t consider printing and postage, which may still save money but let’s see the numbers.
I disagree with the concept of voting before Election Day. Campaigns are dynamic. Things change. People running for office should have until Election Day to make their case. I don’t need to know who won before the 11 o’clock news reports. I can wait a couple weeks for all votes to be counted, regardless of how the ballots are cast.
I also disagree with our primary rules in Michigan. My freedom to vote for whomever I want should not be cast aside with our one party rule.
Finally, let’s talk more about rank order voting, which would give me even greater freedom to vote my choice.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 9:07am

Absolutely not! Creates more issues toward fraud. If your to lazy to get in line, then just don't do it. They have made it much easier for absentee ballot. Another one to watch more closely. They have found over 3 million people that vote, that are dead. they have found towns that have over 100% vote. Popular votes should be disqualified from all elections. That takes away from smaller states and smaller communities.

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 5:23pm

Please cite your (surely existent and reputable) source on the 3 million dead voters

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 9:08am

I would support a move to a vote-by-mail system that requires voters to send in or hand-deliver an application for a ballot to their city or county clerk or the Secretary of State's office or other government office that can immediately check the applicant's registration status before handing or mailing them a ballot. I absolutely do not support automatically mailing ballots to every (now automatically registered!) voter in the state at their last official address.

This is less of a concern now that Michigan's driver's licenses and state IDs meet the requirements of the Real ID act and differentiate between US citizens and other legal residents in the Secretary of State database. But having thousands of misdelivered ballots floating around Michigan's college towns and the low income neighborhoods where people very frequently change addresses is a bad way to maintain or improve election security.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 9:29am

I have always felt that fraud will result from this idea, not to mention higher costs for election workers, time consumed with the process. The best and perhaps last test of our committment to our citizenship is to go to the polls and voting in person after having proved our citizenship and our identity.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 10:01am

Why do we need it when we already have it? The old saying goes “you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” surely applies here. Some percentage of the citizens will never vote no matter what one does to make it easier for them to do so.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 10:36am

Absolutely agree with Mail in Ballots only!!! The more people who vote, the better the representation of our Democracy.
Fair, unhacked, easy, saves money, safe. Let's do it!

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 1:53pm

Until the left tries to say that brown people are unable to get stamps.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 3:56pm

So making voting so easy, requiring so little effort, so little preparation or time spent understanding economics, government, legal concepts or current events, basically reducing the importance and significance of voting to less than buying a pack of chewing gum, how does this really improve our state and nation?

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 11:07am

Absolutely Yes. Is the fairest, cheapest, uncheatable, unhackable! More of us, We the People will have the time and convenience to vote. Repubs are shaking in terrified fear.

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 1:51pm

Not sure that would work because then the left would have to claim that black and brown people are too stupid to have access to stamps. I mean they think they are too stupid to obtain ID's so.....

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 5:24pm

Nothing like the projected racism of your average reactionary

Ann Farnell
Tue, 06/04/2019 - 3:37pm

I mail vote all the time. I am pretty sure the envelope is stamped, Todd. I will excuse your denigrating remarks about non whites in case I don’t remember correctly. I do remember this though. Detroiters average the same percentage of voters as outstate Mi. 27%. That puts a lie to the whole conversation, doesn’t it?

I would like to suggest, though, that ballot applications be available in DMV offices as I had a very hard time getting a hold of my small town county clerk. Not that DMV employees don’t have enough to do already. I know the applications are available on line but I couldn’t get my printer working for the last Presidential election.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 06/04/2019 - 6:07pm

"Vote by mail cannot be hacked. Paper ballots would be processed using counters which are not connected to the Internet; having every vote on paper provides an audit trail for recounts and quality control."

Obviously, Mr. Sorg, has never heard of "Ballot Harvesting".

It's all the rage in North Carolina and California.



If his goal was to diminish the integrity of the next election here in Michigan, this in the best way to do it.

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 1:10am

I am surprise Mr. Sorg isn't advocating to government employees to fill out the ballots, it would surely be more cost effective, it would significantly reduce, though I doubt prevent, all spoiled ballots. It could eliminate all the voting paraphernalia the cities and counties have to maintain and the staffing they have to hire each election day.
Mr. Sorg seems to ignore any concerns except those that are manageable by the government, he makes no consideration of the opportunities his approaches offer to those who are less 'ethical' than he might be.
If he were truly concerned about the whole of the election process, he would stop and consider the unintended consequences his ideas could create and suggest ways to address them. But he seems so comfortable in his world that he fails to include the realities when including people in his recommendations. I wonder if he read about election events in the Carolinas the past elections.
I must add a footnote my voting, it is a right but like all rights it is something we should work at. We should prize it and be willing to make the physical and intellectual efforts to vote. If soldiers are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure we can vote they we should be willing and able to go to the polls and exercise that right.

middle of the mit
Thu, 06/06/2019 - 5:51pm

This is a good thing. It isn't about people being too lazy or unpatriotic. It is about time. Most people have a hard time getting to the polls and then when they get there, there is a line that they may not have the time to wait in.

My little polling place in Northern Michigan, since Republicans passed voter laws has gone from being able to vote in 10 minutes to waiting over 40 minutes. I can not even begin to understand what it is like in more populated areas.

The other complaints I see are about being informed and taking time to be informed. Wouldn't it be nice if you could have your ballot at home, do the research and then vote and then take or send your informed vote? "Why can't they do that anyway? " We can, but I don't see how this changes the equation.

As for fraud? The only fraud for absentee or vote by mail happened in North Carolina by republican operatives for a Republican candidate.

Some one said that that person was undermining vote by mail. That may have been a secondary consequence, but I highly doubt that person wanted to get caught.

We will be dealing with paper ballots. Every registered voter has a voter ID with a number that was put out by their polling locality. Here we use townships.

I would suggest a month before the election polling locations could start taking calls for ballots. Two weeks before the election, you can pick them up in person and start dropping them off.

If need be, we could have licensed ballot collectors to pick up ballots from nursing homes or apartment complexes. With HEAVY FINES and jail time for doing what NC did.

And as for the rest of the fraud? Manafort passed off polling data from the RNC to Russian operatives. The Russians hacked into a voter machine company and multiple local township officials across America and Yet this administration has done nothing about it.

And before you slam Obama, Jeh Johnson wanted to help the States with their cybersecurity before the election and Republican States said no thank you.

What happened?

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 12:41am

When you say 'most people' are you referring to over half of those who vote, to the majority of those registered to vote, or more than 50% of those eligible to vote?
You imply that the reason people don't vote is because of the only reason so many people aren't voting is because of impetiments constructed by Republicans, I am surprise that you don't believe that people make a choice not to register and vote for personal reasons such as they come from a family that didn't vote, that they are more involve in personal activities that they don't want to interrupt, that they have little or no interest in the candidates, or as is often the case in my Democratic dominated district there are many unopposed elections, or social commitments, or they simply have no interest in voting.

I have to admit you are the first I have heard reporting that the Russians actually tampered with voting counts. I have heard much about the efforts to influence the elections through social media and such, but not direct hacking of voters counts. I have even heard how Democrats once they learned they suspected they were 'hacked' they denied the FBI access to both confirm the hacking and try to identify who did the hacking. I have heard that the Democratic Party and their candidate for President campaign paid for a Russian concocted 'dossier' in an attempt to prevent the Republican candidate from winning and then to remove him from office. Now the latter is voter fraud but seems even more severe as an attempt to overturn a lawful and certified election.

In any case I don't see how any of your concerns will be addressed by having mail ballots. As I recall Mr. Sorg's reason was simply for efficiency, for cost savings, he ignored vote security.
I recall a time voting was so important that when an impaired voter [lack of sight] went to the polls there was a designed person to take that voter's direction on casting the ballot and an election worker was there to observe and verify that the vote had been cast as directed. Though a few years ago, as I recall, their was a election worker in the Columbus, Ohio area that was convict of casting 6 ballots in a single election, she was using the absentee ballots she had requested surreptitious for family members and did the voting in their stead.
I learned about voting fraud in my youth when in our precinct post election they found 50 deceased people from a local state hospital had voted [the ballot issue margin of defeat was 6 votes]. Oh, this was in a Democratic dominated suburb of Detroit and my parents were raising me to be a 'yellow dog' Democrat.
My concern is that we have a long history of voting fraud and to ignore it when suggesting a change in the system is to invite the fraud into the new system. Rather then whine about what one perceives as happening to others, it is much better to identify those events and develop ways to prevent them in any changes that are being proposed. I would even include such hypothetical events as you mention