Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have set the standard for how to hold an election during a pandemic, and possibly change elections long after.
MICHIGAN — The May 5 elections in Michigan may be a test case to argue for ease of access to absentee voting, even when there isn’t a crisis.
The pandemic coronavirus made in-person voting a risk so Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s solution was to increase access to mail in voting during the mid-crisis election.
For Tuesday’s voting, every Michigander was sent an absentee ballot application to avoid the kind of risky in-person voting Wisconsin did in April. In fact, as COURIER notes, Wisconsin not only insisted on its in-person vote but refused to extend access to absentee ballots.
The decision to give every Michigander access to absentee voting, The ‘Gander reported, was a major flash point in the tensions between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and President Donald Trump.
The data seems to be supporting Whitmer in that endeavor.
In a press briefing Monday, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said voter turnout was already 20% in communities having elections. A day before the rare physical polling stations would even open. She anticipated that the overall turnout would double compared to the normal 12% turnout in normal comparable elections.
“Already we have seen signs of success,” Benson said. “More than 140,000 citizens have returned their ballots by mail, demonstrating that even in times of great uncertainty people want to vote and they want to weigh in on important local issues. That’s all the more reason why we must work together across the state to ensure that for these voters, and every voter, democracy marches on.”
About half of the communities scheduled to have May 5 elections postponed with the Secretary of State’s blessing, but half of those communities went ahead with the vote citing, among other concerns, that without summer millages schools may not have needed funding in fall. For those that went ahead, Benson’s office provided social distancing training, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other support in the run-up to the vote.
In each community, one polling site for in-person voting had to be maintained for voters with disabilities, though as The ‘Gander reported even on this front new efforts had been made by Benson’s office to expand access to absentee voting.
“My team and I have been in constant contact with local clerks to ensure that we have been supporting each of their specific needs,” she said. “Whether processing and counting ballots that have come in via the mail or managing a limited in-person option, we also know that it takes people to carry out any election. So we recruited more than 1,800 Michiganders throughout the state to assist clerks and ensure that anyone who did not feel comfortable working for any reason was not required to do so.”
Michigan’s approach not only contrasts with the more dangerous in-person model used by Wisconsin, but also acts as a trial-by-necessity of making voting by mail a more normalized and accessible solution to increased civic engagement. The massive increase in voting resulting from the decision to encourage voting by mail may indicate a wider comfort with the idea among Michiganders and could potentially increase turnout in elections long after the end of the pandemic.
Benson also highlighted that the success of the May elections even before polls formally opened is a good indicator to Michiganders, and for that matter all Americans, concerned about conducting November’s elections in the shadow of the coronavirus.
“Voters should take assurance in this. With two state-wide elections on the horizon— this August and November — we have shown that we can protect your health and your right to vote,” she said. “The reality is, in Michigan every citizen has a right to vote from home. So we’re going to be spending every moment we can between now and our two state-wide elections this year making sure every citizen, every voter, has the ability to do that.”
To that end, Benson encouraged The ‘Gander and our media colleagues to remind readers that Michiganders can request absentee ballots for the remaining elections this year. You can get the needed form from the Secretary of State’s website and in just a few minutes fill it out, print it, sign it and mail it to your local clerk, whose address the website helps you look up.
That right, of all Michiganders to vote absentee for any reason, is a relatively new one and something of a game-changer in Michigan, as The ‘Gander reports. While it wasn’t clear in March if the rise in absentee voters was long=time voters changing their means of participation or new voters, May’s result is far more clear in that respect: absentee voting is increasing total turnout.
As for today, in-person sites are available to provide same-day registration to vote and request a ballot to take home, or deliver their ballot to their in-person polling place, Benson explained.
“You will have that right to vote from home, to mail in your ballot,” Benson stressed.