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

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. 

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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