Michigan GOP lawmakers claim Jocelyn Benson’s absentee ballot mailings illegal

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in May that her office would use funds from the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to send absentee ballot applications to all of Michigan’s registered voters, a move that drew backlash from Republicans, including President Donald Trump. (File photo)

LANSING — Republicans lawmakers on Wednesday excoriated Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson for mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the August and November elections. 

Benson’s predecessor, Ruth Johnson, who is now a GOP senator from Holly, led the charge during a Senate Elections Committee hearing, saying Benson’s “changes and attempts to centralize certain election functions ... are really truly alarming.”

Benson announced in May that her office would use $4.5 million of election funds from the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to send absentee ballot applications to all of Michigan’s 7.7 million registered voters.

The move drew backlash from Republicans, including President Donald Trump who called Benson a “rogue Secretary of State” on Twitter and threatened to withhold funding for Michigan. Republicans have argued the mailings could endanger election security by leaving more room for voter fraud. 

Former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who is now a GOP senator from Holly, said Benson’s “changes and attempts to centralize certain election functions ... are really truly alarming.”

In June, Benson also launched a platform that allows registered voters to apply for an absentee ballot online using their state ID and last four digits of their Social Security numbers. Voters can also scan and submit a digital copy of their signed absentee ballot application via email.

The Senate Elections Committee, which is chaired by Johnson, heard from local clerks about concerns leading to the August and November elections. Johnson said many of Benson’s changes have “negatively affected clerks, who feel that their voices are often not heard.” 

“She continues to make unilateral decisions that are ill-thought-out, they’re rushed. And most importantly, they’re untested,” Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018, told committee members Wednesday. 

“A presidential election cycle is not the time to be throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks here.”

Patting a stack of hundreds of notes from constituents, Johnson said that she’s heard of “countless examples of absentee ballot applications being mailed to individuals who are dead, have moved, are non-citizens or are underage.”

Lyons agreed, telling committee members that it is a side-effect of automatic voter registration implemented by the statewide ballot initiative to enshrine a number of voting rights in the state constitution. 

Department of State spokesperson Jake Rollow said Lyons and Johnson’s allegations are false: The absentee voter application has been available on the state’s website for years, “so mailing it does not pose any additional security risk,” he wrote in an email to Bridge. Automatic voter registration helps identify non-citizens and those who have moved out of state who are on the voter rolls by checking their eligibility every time they have a transaction with the Department of State about their personal ID, he added. 

Benson "is using data and best practices developed over decades in other states to make our elections more modern, secure and accessible,” Rollow said.

While arguments around absentee voting are often framed around fraud, politics often isn’t far behind: Conventional wisdom is increased absentee voting hurts Republicans and helps Democrats, while other research indicates there’s little evidence it helps either party.

House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, released a statement calling the hearing “fearmongering” that “serves to undermine confidence in our elections.”

Johnson told the MIRS podcast earlier this week that she found 3,325 non-citizens on the rolls when she was Secretary of State, which she removed. They got there “largely by accident,” she said.

Lyons also argued that Benson’s decision to mail absentee ballot applications is illegal because existing state law only says local officials can send applications to those who request them. Rollow said that's also not true — both political parties and other organizations mail ballot applications ahead of most major elections, and that Benson "has the authority and a responsibility to ensure voters are aware they now all have this right (to vote absentee for no reason), and to provide equal access to it."

That’s the subject of an ongoing lawsuit against the Secretary of State. A Court of Claims judge appointed by Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm denied a request this month to stop Benson from mailing the applications because she isn’t a local official.

As anecdotal reports arise of people receiving applications for a dead relative or someone who no longer lives at their house, GOP officials have said they’re concerned the unexpected mailings could open up avenues for voter fraud. 

Johnson raised concerns Wednesday that the online application, which pulls the applicant’s signature from the Secretary of State’s files, could be eliminating the tool used to verify applicants. 

Applicants must also provide the last four digits of their Social Security number and other personal information to receive the application. Voters must sign their ballot when they cast it, which must match the signature the state has on file.

Experts have said an uptick in fraud from the mailings is unlikely because of the multiple requirements to verify identities. They argue that mass mailing could help purge inaccurate voter records because undelivered mail will eventually be returned to local clerks, which can use that to remove dead people and other inaccurate records from the voter rolls. 

In the past nine years, Michigan officials have brought three criminal cases involving voter fraud, Rollow said.

One involved a Hamtramck City Council candidate charged with delivering ballots for others to the clerk’s office; another accused a non-citizen of voting in Roseville; and in 2011, a marijuana dispensary owner was accused of offering free marijuana in exchange for registering to vote.

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Excited Democrats
Wed, 06/24/2020 - 9:16pm

Too late. We all mailed our applications back already. We will be voting absentee for the first time ever and in all future elections. Now we can take our time to do our research, read the ballot, and cast it at our convenience. Thank you, Ms Benson!

PS Sorry haters of voting rights!

Jake K
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 10:37am

Excited?? You've always had the option to vote absentee. Nothing new.

However...you should have solicited the right, not had the state promote it to you and by doing so, send applications to many who are not eligible.

Jennifer E
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 1:44pm

Says you, we never had no reason absentee voting available in the past. Only my old Republican relatives were eligible for the service. I have never been happier. What a convenience, especially during a pandemic! Now I too can vote like Trump! Only ELIGIBLE people can vote. You can't vote with merely an application. You would have to commit voter fraud otherwise, something extremely rare.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 4:23pm

We have not always had the option to vote absentee in MI unless the voter was of a certain age or had a specific reason they could not make it to the polls (illness, poll worker, etc.). It was only in 2018 that all voters could opt to vote absentee.

And it wasn't absentee ballots that were mailed - it was applications for an absentee ballots. If you don't want to vote absentee, you don't have to fill it out. Voting by mail in MI is safe and well-controlled. Not only that - you can fill out your ballot and deliver it to the clerk's office yourself, without using the mail. In light of a world-wide pandemic, every state should have been pro-active in allowing all eligible voters to vote absentee.

John Armand
Wed, 06/24/2020 - 9:33pm

Benson needs to be held accountable for her reckless waste of money and highly suspicious motives behind her illegal move, in defiance of President Trump.

John Chastain
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 1:30pm

The Michigan Sec of State is not answerable to Trump. In fact the government of the state of Michigan is not answerable to Trump. It is answerable to the citizens of Michigan. All of them not just Trumps republican base and their armed militias. You'd better hold on to your hat there Mr. Armand a whole lots of us plan on defying Trump this coming November and some will be doing it by mail in ballot. Like seniors have done in this state for years now, without fraud. The only suspicious motives here are the Michigan Trump Republicans who will lie, cheat and steal to win the state for Trump, again. Sorry if I'm "in Defiance" of President Trump, if this were his buddy Putin's Russia I could go to the gulag for it. Fortunately its not, sorry for that too.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 1:51pm

Trump??? We the People believe in States' Rights. Besides, kind of hypocritical, he votes absentee along with Melania, Ivanka, Jared and many others working in his White House, including Michigan's own Betsie DeVos! Apparently they're just incompetent at it.


But what's the problem with absentee voting for everyone? Oh yeah, higher voter turnout means more Democrats vote. That's why people in Democratic districts always have long lines, fewer operable voting machines.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 7:54pm

The money Benson is wasting on mail in voter fraud could be used to supply books or lunches for school kids.

The kids are alright
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 12:35am

"Think of the children!" That's the chorus of feigned outrage. The children will be just fine, especially when we elect people who actually care about their schooling and welfare.

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 5:54am

Defiance of Trump? Since when does the Michigan Secretary of State report to Trump?

middle of the mit
Wed, 06/24/2020 - 11:35pm


Paul Weyrich - "I don't want everybody to vote" (Goo Goo)

[[[Patting a stack of hundreds of notes from constituents, Johnson said that she’s heard of “countless examples of absentee ballot applications being mailed to individuals who are dead, have moved, are non-citizens or are underage.”]]]

First, did anyone check to make sure they weren't just empty paper in envelopes? And even if they are real notes, nobody stole them from the mailbox at least, eh? And it seems that those citizens aren't sending them in, are they? And I would bet they would have a hard time forging a signature that they have never seen.

[[[Lyons agreed, telling committee members that it is a side-effect of automatic voter registration implemented by the statewide ballot initiative to enshrine a number of voting rights in the state constitution. ]]]

Voting rights? Enshrined into the constitution? Heavens to Murgatroyd!

I refer you to the video at the top, while I vote the same way my grandparents and the current President, half of his cabinet including Vice President Pence who used the Indiana Governors Mansion as his address to vote last year........even though that is NOT his address.


[[[Pence’s spokesman Devin O’Malley told BI that “lawyers previously reviewed the issue for him and determined that, since the Pences did not own any homes in Indiana or Washington, the governor’s mansion was fine for complying with state law.”]]]

Did they sell the house they used to live in before VP Pence was a Governor?

This why some comments seem as though they are yelling or angry, but it is just flat out frustration and unbelief that there can be this level of concern trolling from a party of Government that looks the other way when it is their people doing something wrong and blame the other side for just wanting to obey the law and make it easier for the citizens, who already have a hard time voting because of closed or reduced polling locations.

Especially when there is just no proof that what Republicans are saying is true. When do we get to tell them they are peddling false information?

Oh! I just did!

[[[In the past nine years, Michigan officials have brought three criminal cases involving voter fraud, Rollow said.

One involved a Hamtramck City Council candidate charged with delivering ballots for others to the clerk’s office; another accused a non-citizen of voting in Roseville; and in 2011, a marijuana dispensary owner was accused of offering free marijuana in exchange for registering to vote.]]]

And there is one of my pieces of proof! In the first account between the 3 individuals involved there were 41 counts of voter fraud, That is 41 votes in Wayne County. And they were caught! The other one was an accusation and the other was a dude who was giving away cannabis to those above age to register to vote.......NOT to vote.

And they were ALL caught!

How does that happen?

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 8:59am

So the state can mail notices to renew your license, but not applications to vote?

Lisa M
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 10:15am

And the State can mail the actual ID cards used to verify identity but not absentee voter applications. Feds can mail millions in stimulus checks, state unemployment checks, crickets from the political right. It is about voter suppression and so unfortunate that instead of focusing on getting more citizens to support conservative philosophy, this is where they will “hang their hats”. Telling.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 1:53pm

So sue her. I can't wait for another Gorsuch/Roberts majority ruling!

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 10:41am

Your driver's license has your picture on it, the odds of someone using it fraudulently is nil. A friend's deceased father got an absentee ballot application and my neighbor got one for the person who lived there previously. What mechanism is there that will stop someone else from filling them out, getting a ballot mailed, and voting fraudulently in those names?

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 1:27pm

Read the article! The State has multiple ways to check whether a submitted ballot is legit including the most important one: verifying your signature! If you have read the article, you would have noted the point that "how would someone know the signature of the dead/moved person in order to submit it? Submitting a false ballot is NOT the same as having it count.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 1:56pm

Nonsense, you mail in the registration and tag renewals, no photos involved. Nothing to see here folks!

Good Work!
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 2:01pm

The signatures have to match signatures on file for DL, tax returns, etc. It's not easy to forge a name for voting purposes without getting caught and definitely isn't worth the trouble/risk.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 7:57pm

Benson had been accepting money from George Soros since 2010. Mail in voter fraud is part of his political agenda to destroy America.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 12:37am

I hope you are right. Voting rights are human rights. Who would be against voting rights?

Sun, 06/28/2020 - 10:17am

Benson was in academia - not in politics in 2010 - so why would she have been "accepting" money from Soros? Stop trolling, and check your sources.

Bryan Watson
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 9:16am

Johnson displayed a stack of "hundreds of notes". Hundreds? There are 7.7 million registered voters, so "hundreds of notes" represents a 0.009% error rate - which, for a database dependent on people voluntarily notifying a government agency, is pretty darned good.

Republican Johnson and her Republican predecessors Teri Lynn Land and Candice Miller had 24 years to unearth all those "fraudulent" registrations. And they actively worked at it because removing voters from the rolls is an important part of the Republican Party's election strategy for success. For them to claim now that there's a serious defect in the rolls is to claim that they didn't do their jobs very well.

Jake K
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 10:34am

Here's the potential problem which could lead to false election results. A "Mail-In Ballot Application" was mailed to my address in the name of my married daughter. She has not resided in the state of MI for over 8 years. She was previously registered in WI for 2 years and for the last 6 years in MA. Why oh why, would the State of MI send her an application?? If this could happen once, how many other similar instances have occurred? How many questionable applications have been sent and how many will be used to file fraudulent votes?

Keep tryin
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 2:05pm

So who would commit the fraud? You, someone else at your address? Would you be willing to commit a federal offense? People can break laws all the time. That doesn't mean they necessarily do.

David Werner
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 11:14am

I find it very interesting that so many respondents to this article present every argument in the book to prevent people from easy access to voting. The philosophy must be it you make it difficult enough many people will not make the effort. In a participatory government, I think we should make it as easy as possible for everyone to vote, particularly when the research shows that the incident rate of illegal voting is minimal at best.

I suspect much of the anti absentee/mail in ballot chatter is a carry over of racist attitudes directed toward blacks, other people of color, minorities, and poor people.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 2:07pm

Yep, like a poll tax and literacy requirements. There is a segment of society that hates voting rights.

Nancy Burns
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 11:34am

When I renewed my driver’s license in July 2019, I went to the SOS website, read what I needed to do to prepare for my visit, made an appointment, and was in and out in 5 minutes! What’s all the fuss about?

Divided we Fall
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 2:43pm

How many new, potentially fraudulent unemployment claims are being investigated right now in Michigan; 100,000 or so? That process is still a mess months after the response to the COVID outbreak.

Without public confidence in the security and accuracy of elections we are doomed to be a completely divided country. The state bureaucracy has already shown it can't manage rapid change nor prevent fraud.

middle of the mit
Thu, 06/25/2020 - 9:08pm

You complain that Government can't keep you or your information safe, except you are forgetting it was the credit rating agencies and other large mulitnational corporations data banks that those hackers got their information from, not so much the Government

So who is going to fix or pay for your information being stolen? It wasn't your information, it was the businesses and we can't do anything about it because there are no rules saying they have to protect the information they have on you.

Where do you put your confidence?

And how do you hack my paper ballot in my mailbox without commiting a Federal crime? And how do those that do try to commit voter fraud always seem to get caught?

Divided We Fall
Fri, 06/26/2020 - 12:09pm

The fact that fraud is a crime didn't seem to prevent upward of 100,000 people in our state alone from attempting it within the last couple of months, apparently. How would you have any idea of whether or not people who commit voter fraud almost always get caught? It would be great if true, but you can't demonstrate that.

I put my confidence in a system that has the fewest points at which cheating can be introduced. In-person voting with a photo ID matching an address in the correct precinct whenever possible seems like a good place to start.

Fix it
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 12:43am

Funny how absentee voting only became an issue when it was made available for all. By the way, what new legislation and funding has the GOP legislature proposed/enacted to combat the ID theft problems and under-staffing?

middle of the mit
Mon, 06/29/2020 - 9:38pm

Divided We Fall,
You are now conflating two different types of fraud. https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-government/big-benefits-claims-perfect...

[[[MIchigan’s unemployment system had already been overwhelmed by massive jobless claims in mid-May, when the Secret Service warned states a “well-organized Nigerian fraud ring ]]]

That is not MI residents committing fraud against fellow Michiganders.

Unless you have proof that a 100,000 people in the State voted fraudulently. If that is the case, I would implore you to provide proof. Because I haven't seen it anywhere for voting.

So do we take away the absentee voting rights of senior citizens, army personnel, people who are out of State and the disabled? Because they all vote absentee and through the mail. Just as much fraud could happen there.

I want to see conservatives push for that! And until they do.......they are hypocrites.

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 7:52pm

Absentee ballots have always been available for those who cannot come to the polling place on the day of the election. Voting at the polling place puts a great value on our elections and prevents fraud. Every eligible citizen had a duty to vote in person if you can. Mail in ballots open us up to fraud.

: )
Sat, 06/27/2020 - 12:44am

Finally, government of the people by the people for the people might become a reality. Hope is on the horizon.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 2:41pm

The GOP’s effort to erode democracy through voter suppression is now a key part of any election cycle. Rather than attempting to persuade Americans of color to support policies and candidates, Republicans have instead focused acutely on disenfranchising them and consolidating their white base.