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As absentee voting surges, Michigan Republicans seek to bar online applications

Absentee ballot
Michigan Republicans want to bar election officials from mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters. They say the measure is important for security; Democrats say it’s perpetuating a lie about voting fraud claims.

Oct. 14: Michigan GOP approves election reforms. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s veto is next.
Oct. 12: Michigan clerks: Read fine print of Secure MI Vote. It could ban volunteers.
Oct. 6: Michigan Senate passes bill to tighten election ID, absentee ballot laws

LANSING — Michigan Republicans are advancing legislation that would bar election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications or allowing voters to apply for them online.

Bills taken up Tuesday in the House Elections and Ethics Committee stand little chance of becoming law under Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has already vetoed a handful of GOP election proposals and vowed to do the same with others.

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But the debate highlights an ongoing partisan feud over voting security following former President Donald Trump's continued false claims that an explosion in mail-in voting led to mass voter fraud in last year’s election.

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Tuesday's public hearing also foreshadowed fights to come as Republicans clash with Whitmer and Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson over election laws and rules.

One GOP bill that Republicans advanced Tuesday in a party-line vote would outlaw an online absentee ballot application process that Benson established during the 2020 election cycle and is currently attempting to write into state rules. 

The process allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot online using a "digital" signature on file with the secretary of state, bypassing the usual security requirement for voters to physically sign an application so that clerks can compare their signature to the version on file.

But voters can only use that digital signature if they also provide the state with additional information to confirm their identity, including their full driver license or state ID number, date of birth, last four digits of their Social Security number and eye color.

Still, the state should require a physical signature, according to sponsoring Rep. Andrew Beeler, R-Port Huron, who said last month that his legislation would strike a healthy "balance" between election security and voter access.

"Our last election was really decided at the mailbox instead of the voting booth, so it's my belief that as we see our culture moving more toward an absentee voting construct, we should embrace that change by ensuring that there are commensurate levels of security with this form of voting,” Beeler said in committee testimony. ‘’

Roughly 1.6 million Michigan voters cast absentee ballots in the 2020 presidential primary, which had been a record until 3.3 million voters used the option in the general election. The previous high was 1.3 million in 2016. 

Critics of the GOP legislation counter that the state’s new online application process is secure and didn’t lead to fraud in the 2020 election. 

They note actual absentee ballots — as opposed to online applications — still require a physical signature from voters. 

Benson’s online application process was a “lifesaver” in Canton Township in Wayne County, where election workers had struggled to review a flood of applications that voters had physically signed and then emailed in, assistant clerk Anthony Essmaker told lawmakers on Tuesday. 

“We had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails coming in — if not thousands — to our mail email line, and it was very difficult technologically to keep up on them,” Essmaker said. 

“So the secretary of state’s online application system literally saved the rights of voters by allowing us to process them quickly and efficiently.”

Benson's office, in filings with the state seeking to create a formal rule for online applications, said the system makes sense given advances in technology and the expansion of absentee voting access that is now written into the Michigan Constitution after voters approved a ballot measure in 2018. 

It’s a way to "expand access to an absent voter ballot," the secretary of state said.

Another bill debated Tuesday in committee — but not yet voted on — would prohibit the secretary of state or local election clerks from sending absentee ballot applications to any voters who did not first request one. 

Benson did so last year, encouraging remote voting during the COVID-19 pandemic by using $4.2 million in federal funding to try and mail absentee ballot applications to every voter whose local clerk had not already done so. 

Republicans criticized Benson's mass mailings because some applications were sent to old addresses that had not been updated in the state's Qualified Voter File, errors they say eroded confidence in the election system. 

But sponsoring Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, said her primary motivation is to save taxpayers money.

“If someone wants an AV ballot, they should absolutely get it,” Calley, R-Portland, said in committee testimony last month. 

While Whitmer is likely to veto the legislation should it reach her desk, a GOP group called Secure MI Vote is preparing to circulate a petition that would allow the Legislature to circumvent the governor to change election laws. 

That initiative also proposes to bar state or local election officials from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications. 

Critics have blasted GOP efforts — including similar Senate legislation — as an attempt to suppress voting following a presidential election in which a record 3.3 million Michiganders cast absentee ballots.  

It’s “shameful” and could “undermine civic engagement,” Dorian Tyus, “deputy voter protection director” for the Michigan Democratic Party, said Tuesday. 

Essmaker, the Canton Township assistant clerk, questioned why the House bill does not also bar absentee ballot applications sent by political parties and third-party organizations. Those emails have led to voter complaints. 

Under the legislation, the Michigan Republican Party could continue sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications to its preferred voters, but election clerks could not send out unsolicited applications to every voter in their jurisdiction, regardless of political affiliation, Essmaker noted. 

“If it’s just politics, we have a problem with that,” he said.  

“If it's truly to protect the voter,” also barring unsolicited applications from private and political organizations “would be very helpful,” he told lawmakers. 

Rep. Ann Bollin, a Brighton Township Republican and former elections clerk who now chairs the House panel, said the legislation isn’t politically motivated. 

“I want to put forth good policy,” Bollin said.

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