Michigan is learning from other state’s struggles of balancing voting in person with voting by mail.
MICHIGAN — Primary elections in other states have both reinforced arguments for Michigan’s approach to voting during a pandemic and highlighted areas where the state is learning to focus on strengthening the system for the August and November elections.
This week, primary elections were held in New York, Kentucky, and Virginia. Those came in the wake of the disastrous Georgia primary in early June. Some patterns emerged across these primaries, many of which were already on Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s radar as Michigan gears up for a primary election in August.
As The ‘Gander reported, the August primary will be the next major step testing the vote-by-mail strategy that has been successfully used since the pandemic began in Michigan. Benson is working on strengthening that strategy going forward.
Michigan’s chief election officer said she is cautiously optimistic about preparations for the 2020 elections amid the coronavirus outbreak, emphasizing the state can avoid failures seen elsewhere by giving people clear choices of how to vote absentee or in person.
Giving Michigan a Choice in How to Vote
In the May election, which shattered turnout records, nearly all voters voted by mail. But some did go to polling places in person, and the ability to do so was essential to those that got confused or lost navigating the state’s vote-by-mail system.
Deborah Watts, a 66-year-old retiree from Warren, voted in-person because she misunderstood part of the mail-in voting process. She walked through a locked door, she kept social distance, a clerk wiped down the voting machine after every use. Watts said she felt safe.
While addressing those misunderstandings is a major part of Benson’s plans leading up to August, catching those who made mistakes voting absentee is one of a few reasons in-person voting remains essential during the pandemic. Though that option needs to be closely managed.
“We want to have that same physical option and then enough other options in place to essentially reduce the number of people who might choose that in-person option,” said Benson. “You have less crowding on Election Day, less lines on Election Day as a result, and more people voting by mail.”
Benson said her office has so far recruited at least 2,000 workers for the August and November elections to address shortages due to veteran volunteers’ safety concerns and because local clerks will need extra staff to process a surge in absentee ballots. The new workers — “democracy MVPs” — also will be necessary due to social-distancing protocols. She told The ‘Gander in May that the “democracy MVP” program has been very successful.
Still, Benson encourages use of vote-by-mail. Michigan has already sent absentee ballot applications to all registered Michigan voters, a move that drew misinformation and threats from President Donald Trump. That mirrors the actions that led up to the successful May election.
“What we’ve learned by observing this whole process is that you have to, especially this year, ensure that you have a robust, effective vote-by-mail system in place with consistently educating voters on how to use it and consistently supporting election administrators who are working to keep the trains running and make it all happen,” said Benson.
The combo of preparations are intended to help Michigan avoid situations like the calamitous Georgia primary, which has spawned multiple concerns from media outlets about the ability of states to conduct a national election in November.
Addressing Racial Disparities in Voting
Benson recently announced that she will participate in listening sessions in places with low turnout historically — precincts in Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Flint, for instance. She said she is concerned that voting issues in other parts of the U.S. have sent a message to people of color and historically disenfranchised communities “that it’s going to be extra hard and unsafe for you to vote this year when the reality is anything but.”
Quentin James, founder and president of a PAC that works to address the under-representation of African Americans, explained to the Statesman the distrust Black communities have surrounding vote-by-mail.
“Black voters have reticence in trusting vote by mail,” James said.
He explained that because of how hard-fought the battle for voting rights was, voting in-person is special particularly to older people among Black communities. There are also concerns about trusting the mail in general. But James thinks voting by mail is important, it just has to be paired with voter outreach efforts to ease those concerns. Misinformation from the president adds challenges to that outreach.
“All of that plays a part in why there’s a little bit of a mistrust,” James said. “I think we need to continue to do additional education.”
There have also been structural problems in in-person voting, especially in communities with large Black populations. In the recent Georgia primary, broken voting machines, long lines, and too few ballots plagued a deeply troubled voting effort in places like Atlanta.
While restoring confidence through educating voters is important, Benson is focusing on outreach with the right message for Michiganders at this moment.
“It’s really about delivering educational information about the nuts and bolts of how you vote and what your rights are,” she said. “I think we’ll see a lot of messaging transition into a how-to-vote as opposed to a you’ve-got-to-vote message. I think a lot of people know they’ve got a vote and now it’s really a question of how.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.