May Special Election to be a mail election as a result of COVID-19.
Yesterday morning, the Office of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson issued a news release that her office will mail an application for an absent voter ballot to all qualified registered voters who have a May Special Election. Michigan Law requires that voters submit a written request for an absent voter ballot. Many city and township clerks now maintain a Permanent Absent Voter (AV) List, where they mail an application for an absent voter ballot to those who have signed up for the list before each election. For those voters that are not already on the Permanent AV List, they can certainly still vote by mail in any election they choose, they would just need to find the request form for that specific election, complete and submit it to their local clerk.
It is my hope that the Bureau of Elections includes the option for voters to sign up for the Permanent Absent Voter List on this application that they are sending, so voters can take advantage of the ability to vote from home in more elections, or, if the voter prefers to go to the polls, they get a reminder of upcoming elections they are able to participate in.
Typically, May Special Elections see lower voter turnout, so perhaps if all voters receive an application for an absent voter ballot and are aware of the election, more will participate.
The Secretary of State has argued that by encouraging absent voter participation, her Office is helping promote public health and keeping democracy protected. During this public health crisis, I can understand and appreciate the desire to encourage voting by mail, but it is important to point out that it will be the local clerks who will be doing most of the heavy lifting.
Just two weeks ago, during the March Presidential Primary Election, we learned what a significant increase in no-reason absentee voting and same-day voter registration looks like in Michigan, and what it means for those clerks and staff who administer the election.
When holding an election by mail, which this essentially will be, arguably on a smaller scale than the August 2020 Election will be, local clerks are going to need additional resources.
The need to start processing ballots the day before the election is heightened, when almost all ballots will be absent voter ballots. The current proposed legislation does not allow for the early tabulation of ballots. The current proposal allows for the processing of ballots, which includes: Opening up the outer envelope, while keeping the voted ballot still in the secrecy envelope, and removing the ballot stub.
Also, some clerks, who have never had an absent voter counting board (AVCB), which is essentially a separate precinct set up for the sole purpose of processing absent voter ballots, are all of a sudden going to find themselves in need of this process. AVCBs are not necessarily difficult to carry out, but do require an extra supply of election inspectors and now, with the concerns about COVID-19, clerks will certainly see a decrease in staff available for these tasks. Coupled with the need to do significant mailings and data entry for those mailings before the election in a timely manner (tracking in the Qualified Voter File when absent voter ballot applications are received, absent voter ballots are mailed, absent voter ballots are received, etc.), clerks are going to have some new, perhaps un-identified, opportunities to overcome.
Although voting by mail, or as us Michiganders know it, absent voting, seems like it protects everyone’s right to vote, there will still be a need for local clerks to have precincts open and their offices open for those individuals who need to go to the polls to vote or those that need to register to vote with their local clerk on Election Day.
The majority of the questions on May ballots are school district millages and bonds, and, as a result of COVID-19, many districts have decided to postpone their election until August. For the counties that do not have their May Special Elections postponed, the Bureau of Elections will mail absent voter ballot applications to all voters with postage-paid return envelopes unless those voters have already requested an absent voter ballot. The state will include a cover letter explaining that voting by mail is the optimal way to cast a ballot due to the public health crisis.
Yesterday, the United States Postal Service issued an industry alert, and a COVID-19 Continuity of Operations Update where readers were reminded that postal and shipping workers, including those in the private sector, are considered essential critical infrastructure workers under recent guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security and have a special responsibility to maintain normal work schedules.
Republican State Representative Ann Bollin of Brighton Township indicated that she believes that it is time for the state to consider postponing the May Special Election to protect voters from COVID-19. Elections were deemed critical infrastructure and as such, we should not accept cancelling or postponing them. Just think of the precedent that would set, especially as we head into a busy election season with the August and November Elections just around the corner. We should, however, adapt and update our election laws and procedures to allow for easier voting by mail (absentee voting) and earlier processing of absent voter ballots, as well as allocate additional resources for tissues, sanitizer, cleaning supplies, staff, and equipment.
The latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan is available here.