Photo via Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office.
Photo via Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office.

At a time when Republican leaders are forcing voters to choose between health and democracy, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer offers both with this upcoming election’s executive order. 

MICHIGAN — With some states delaying spring elections and others pressing on as normal despite the coronavirus pandemic, Michigan seeks a different way forward from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

Instead of delaying the spring election like Virginia has for it’s June Primary or continuing onward with elections as normal like Wisconsin did Tuesday, Michigan is heavily encouraging a vote-by-mail approach. 

Michigan’s registered voters will all be mailed absentee ballot applications in advance of the May elections at the state’s expense, as part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-27

That isn’t to say that vote-by-mail is mandatory. At the moment, in-person voting will still be available. Communities like Port Huron, Michigan will still have an open polling place for in-person voters, the St. Clair County Clerk’s office confirmed to the Gander

But it makes voting more accessible in a time when residents have to balance health with democracy. 

“While we work to slow the spread of COVID-19, we must do everything we can to encourage Michiganders to stay home and stay safe,” Governor Whitmer said.

“The fewer people we have lining up at polling places the better, ensuring Michiganders safely practice social distancing while allowing them to safely exercise their right to vote in local elections.”

County and city clerks across the state are gearing up for an election conducted principally through absentee ballots while preparing to deal with safely conducting what in-person voting occurs, especially in light of the mess that played out in Tuesday’s in-person election in Wisconsin.

“The State is doing a fantastic job in mailing every Village of Lake Linden voter an absentee application at their expense,” Houghton County Clerk Jennifer Kelly told the Gander. “My hope is everyone will return it to the Clerk in a timely manner, so ballots can be sent to the voters.  My concern is for the voter who waits too long and may not be able to have their ballot cast.”

Republicans Pushing for In-Person Voting

This contrasts with the approach of Wisconsin, which has been criticized as putting politics before public safety. Thousands voted in person in Wisconsin’s Tuesday election, forced to choose between democracy and health. In one striking scene, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) stood in head-to-toe medical personal protective equipment while saying it was “incredibly safe” to go vote. 

Michigan’s approach also stands in opposition to President Donald Trump, who has been speaking out against vote-by-mail despite having done it himself just a month ago, reports Courier Newsroom.

“Sure, I can vote by mail … Because I’m allowed to,” Trump told reporters. “Well, that’s called ‘out of state.’ You know why I voted? Because I happen to be in the White House and I won’t be able to go to Florida to vote.”

RELATED: Trump Says It’s OK for Him to Vote Absentee But ‘Dangerous’ for Anyone Else

But for everyone else, Trump argues, absentee or by-mail voting is inherently dishonest. As Courier noted, there is no difference in security or certifiability between in-state and out-of-state absentee voting, but Trump stressed the distinction anyway. 

 “Well, there’s a big difference between somebody that’s out of state and does a ballot and everything is sealed, certified, and everything else. You see what you have to do with the certifications,” he said.

“And you get thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room, signing ballots all over the place.”

The idea that absentee ballot voting is somehow either inherently fraudulent or more likely to be done dishonestly has been thoroughly debunked by The New York Times, however. In fact, the Times argued, states transitioning to purely vote-by-mail might actually see less voter fraud than their peers, though across the board instances of voter fraud remain exceptionally rare. 

The real reason might be the simple truth that Republicans have a history of restricting voter access in recent years. Saying the quiet part out loud, President Trump admitted the partisan advantage of holding in-person elections in a pandemic. As Politico reports, Trump admitted that vote-by-mail disadvantages Republicans. 

“Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to state wide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it,” Trump tweeted at Fox and Friends. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason,  doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

Why Hold an Unsafe Election?

The Times said that the mess that was Wisconsin’s Tuesday election was the capstone of decades of restrictive policies toward voter access. The state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, called it the state’s most undemocratic election in history. But Republicans were keen to get an advantage in the election of a Wisconsin Supreme Court judge, and from there have an advantage in a case before the court to purge hundreds of thousands of names from the state’s voter rolls. 

Wisconsin has one of the nation’s most restrictive voter ID laws that serve as major hardships to poor voters. The attempts to purge the voter roll would further limit the scope of who could vote in future elections. To do that, though, Republicans needed the matter of who will sit on the state’s Supreme Court settled in their favor. And as the President said, vote-by-mail doesn’t work out well for Republicans. 

That comes with a cost. Michigan’s first confirmed cases of the coronavirus occurred the day of the state’s presidential primary, and Michigan Advance argues that this might be one reason the state is one of the hardest hit in the nation. While absentee voter turnout was high on March 10, still millions of Michiganders went to the polls and interacted with other voters and polling place staff. 

While Michigan’s primary was in the early days of the pandemic, Wisconsin’s took place while the nation was grappling with skyrocketing instances of cases. If the Advance is right, that means Wisconsin’s election could have endangered the health of millions, and potentially thousands of lives. 

Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers (D), attempted to delay the election because of the pandemic, but was rebuffed by courts.

As for Lake Linden’s May election, Kelly says her office is ready for the unique challenges ahead. While the coronavirus is making the job of city and county clerks harder, Kelly has no concerns about voting by mail in May. 

In the unlikely event the coronavirus pandemic continues into November, any attempt to delay that election at all would require a change in federal law, and any attempt to delay it longer than a few weeks would need either a constitutional amendment or an emergency exception from the Supreme Court. That said, the way those elections are conducted can be changed by states, so it is possible that vote-by-mail gets revisited in the future. 

How to Vote In Michigan May 5

Michiganders who want to register to vote in the May 5 election are strongly encouraged to do so by April 20. They can register online here or by mail using the form available here.

Those who miss the deadline are still able to register to vote and can do so at their township or city clerk’s office, but should call ahead first. Clerks will also accept applications and proof of residency by mail, email or fax.

“I am grateful to Governor Whitmer for recognizing the critical need to protect public health while ensuring Michigan citizens are able to exercise their fundamental right as voters in our democracy,” said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. “Our sharpest tool to ensure citizens do not have to choose between casting a ballot and risking their health is the constitutional right they have to vote by mail, which voters themselves enshrined in our state constitution in 2018.”

RELATED: No-Reason Absentee Voting Is a Game-Changer in Michigan. Here’s Why.

“Canceling elections sets a dangerous precedent for our democracy. It signals that, in a time of great challenge and uncertainty, we would opt to give up on the fundamental building block of our republic – the ability to elect and hold our elected officials accountable,” Benson said.

“My administration will ensure that all voters eligible to participate in a local election on May 5 receive applications to vote by mail, and we will work with our local clerks to recruit staff and set guidelines to help ensure their health, safety – and our elections – are secure.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.