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Opinion | Now is not the time for sweeping changes in how Michigan votes

In the few short months before the 2020 presidential election, transforming our electoral system to accommodate a huge increase in mail voting puts our citizens’ votes at risk.

That’s not a message from political partisans. It’s the message from Washington’s Secretary of State, who has overseen all-mail elections for the entirety of her tenure.

 On June 29, NBC Nightly News featured Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman explaining the implications of expanding mail voting across the country. Secretary Wyman’s position is unique: she oversees elections in one of only five states that conduct their elections entirely by mail. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Michigan advocates for mail voting have pointed to Washington as exemplary. “Washington has been voting by mail for years,” they contend. “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

 Secretary Wyman’s warning is clear: It’s harder than it looks.

 Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson did not consider the immense work it takes to revolutionize an electoral system to accommodate a massive influx of mailed ballots. What Michigan is being pressured to accomplish in just a few short months took Washington decades to implement. Washington’s first mail elections were low-turnout special elections, via the passage of a 1983 law. Counties were allowed to switch entirely to vote-by-mail a full 12 years later, in 2005, and it was another six years before all-mail elections were codified statewide.

 That’s 28 years of honing the mail-in system before it was established across the state. Washington had almost three decades of experience in vote-by-mail elections before they were standard, and they started with localized special elections and slowly expanded outward. That timeline gave elections officials time to gather evidence, address issues, and increase capacity.

 Secretary Wyman understands the complexities of that process. Getting a vote-by-mail system right – building mechanisms to safeguard votes while enfranchising as many people as possible – requires time, planning, and financial resources.

 Her advice stands in contrast to Secretary Benson’s, who has advocated for as many people as possible to cast ballots by mail. In May, Secretary Benson unilaterally decided to send every name on the voter registration rolls an absentee ballot request form, despite concerns from local clerks that they could not keep up with the influx of request forms and ballots, and that voters who had died or moved remain on Michigan’s rolls.

 Local clerks weren’t given time to update the voter rolls, and Secretary Benson did not seem to have had a plan for how her office would handle the non-deliverable applications, which had a return address that sent them to the Secretary of State’s office.

 Michigan does not have the time, money, or personnel to safely and securely increase its mail voting capacity to the extent sought by Secretary Benson – especially by November. Our neighbors’ primary season was a grim foreshadowing of the thousands, if not millions, of voters who could be disenfranchised in November if we move too quickly to expand mail voting.

 In Pennsylvania’s June primary, elections officials saw a massive influx of mailed ballots. The Post Office and Elections Offices sagged under the weight of delivering request forms and ballots to an unprecedented number of voters. In fact, the administration was so strained that Gov. Tom Wolf issued an eleventh-hour executive order that extended the deadline for ballot acceptance by a week in six Pennsylvania counties. It did not inspire confidence in the results when Philadelphia had only counted 10 percent of the mailed ballots four days after the election.

 Ohio’s April 28 primary was conducted entirely by mail, with no in-person polling places. Both the Post Office and the Board of Elections were overwhelmed with the number of ballot request forms and ballots to be sent out and verified. Some voters reported never receiving their ballots at all, and turnout was uncommonly low for a presidential primary: only 20 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. That is 16 percentage points lower than the primary turnout in Wisconsin, which did not switch to an all-mail election for its April 7 primary.

 Michigan clerks were already preparing for an increase in mail-in or absentee voters due to the passage of Proposal 3. In May, we saw many of the checks and balances in Michigan election law dismissed through executive orders. We cannot allow COVID-19 and the underlying agendas of our top election officials to hijack Michigan elections. Maintaining the proper checks and balances within our existing electoral system is critical to ensuring voter confidence, as well as ensuring that Michigan voters are not disenfranchised by the inability of government agencies to keep up with a huge influx of mailed ballots.

 More than ever, we must support our local clerks in their efforts to run free, fair, secure, and safe elections. The best way to do that is to let them run the elections under Michigan election law – not executive orders. With only a few short months before a pivotal presidential election, now is not the time to make sweeping changes to Michigan elections.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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