Ahead Of State Primary, Michigan Republicans Split Over Mail-In Voting
A record number of voters are expected to vote by mail in Tuesday’s primary but there’s a divide among Republicans in the state about the practice.
Some are taking President Donald Trump’s line that it could lead to fraud while others say Republicans need to embrace it in order to win as voters ditch the polls during the pandemic.
A version of this story appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. You can hear the story by clicking, here.
Several months ago, President Trump singled out Michigan for sending absentee ballot applications to registered voters, falsely claiming it was illegal. Trump supporters in western Michigan burned absentee ballot applications sent by Democrat Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Echoing the president, some state Republicans argue that efforts to expand mail-in voting will increase the chance of fraud. Among them, State Senator Ruth Johnson, a former Republican Secretary of State.
“We’ve opened up our system to stripping out the integrity, it doesn’t help one side or the other, it helps fraud,” said Johnson.
At a Senate Elections Committee hearing chaired by Johnson in June, she thumbed a stack of cards—complaints she had received and solicited of applications that had been sent to people who’d long since moved or, in some cases, were deceased.
Johnson has also claimed, citing anecdotal evidence, voter fraud in the state is undercounted and organizations like the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) meant to improve the accuracy of American voter rolls is faulty because of incomplete participation.
Cries of Fraud Grab Attention, Suck Oxygen
But talk like that troubles plenty of other Republicans, especially those who are a knee deep in the nuts and bolts of how Michigan’s elections work.
“I will respectfully disagree that I think that there are large amounts of fraud. I have been an election official for 15 years and I’ve only had to file two police reports,” said Tina Barton.
Barton, is a local clerk in Rochester Hills Michigan. She serves on the Election Security Commission. Her office is non-partisan but personally, she’s a conservative Republican.
Barton emphasizes the importance of security procedures like signature checks to ensure absentee ballots are secure.
The issues that actually exist, that are not attention grabbers and that people maybe are not going to care about until the day after the election when they had to wait in a really long line, or they think that we did not do our job by assigning enough workers. And so that is the kind of stuff that really should be talked about
She says Johnson has a right to raise concerns about ballot applications being sent to people who have moved or are deceased. And, she’s worried about the state’s new online voter registration system that requires the last four digits of your social security number and your state ID. But Barton says claims about widespread fraud are unfounded.
“The issues that actually exist, that aren't attention grabbers and then people maybe aren't going to care about until the day after the election when they had to wait in a really long line, or they think that we didn't do our job by assigning enough workers. And so that's the kind of stuff that really should be talked about.”
Barton equates talk about voter fraud to partisan bickering. She said she’s worried about poll worker shortages ahead of the August primary, and the still unchanged election law that blocks clerks from processing and counting absentee ballots until election day.
Election experts have long attested that absentee voting fraud is essentially statistically insignificant. In a recent Op-Ed in The Hill, Charles Stewart—a professor at MIT and Director of the Election Data and Science Lab wrote over the past 20 years, 250 million votes have been cast by mail yielding only 143 criminal convictions for voter fraud.
Just two years ago, Michigan voters passed proposal three, a constitutional amendment to make it easier to vote by mail. And recent polls show it’s highly popular with 63 percent of surveyed Michiganders agreeing that vote by mail “has been successfully used in Michigan” and “we should work to make sure more Michigan voters have the opportunity to cast their ballot this way.”
Sowing Seeds Of Distrust
The growing partisan debate also concerns Republican campaign operatives. John Sellek has served as a senior advisor to many statewide Republican campaigns.
He says Republican candidates can’t afford to ignore voting by mail, especially this year.
“The rules are the same, but the motivations, the actions of voters have changed. They're going to vote primarily by mail and any campaign Republican or Democrat that doesn't recognize that and adjust all the resources and to adjust their entire voter turnout operation to that system is going to lose.”
And, Sellek said: they’re not. In fact, a number of Republican congressional campaigns are encouraging voters to vote absentee.
The rules are the same, but the motivations, the actions of voters have changed. They are going to vote primarily by mail. And any campaign Republican or Democrat that doesn't recognize that and adjust all the resources to adjust their entire voter turnout operation to that system is going to lose
Statewide GOP party chair Laura Cox said “We want to make sure that folks across Michigan are comfortable wherever they vote, whether that's going to the polling location, or requesting an absentee ballot and doing that from home.”
Despite relative silence on social media giving voters information about ballot drop boxes or voting by mail—Sellek maintains this hasn’t changed behavior in the field.
Peter Meijer, a candidate in Michigan’s third congressional district encouraged prospective voters in a Facebook post to “Vote Meijer by absentee or at the polls” and fliers from the Michigan GOP encouraging people to support the president by requesting their absentee ballot online.
Sellek said there are lots of real issues about expanding voting by mail –such as: avoiding voter error, counting absentee ballots and whether clerks can handle the volume of mail.
But he said that’s not the debate at center stage.
“The bottom line is the trust that Americans have in the various institutions of government right now we're going through a period where there isn't a whole lot of trust in a whole lot of institutions in American government, and that basic one that we've got to be able to hold on to is the integrity of the vote.”
For many voters the biggest concern is not about fraud—it’s about if their absentee ballot will be delivered on time.
Kelley, a Republican business owner from metro Detroit who didn’t give her last name for privacy reasons said her reason for not voting by mail has nothing to do with presidential tweets or silence from the state GOP.
“Well, my vote by mail feelings stem from my distrust number one: of the U.S. Postal Service,” said Kelley before adding:
“The area that I actually live in, they have screwed up my mail numerous times. My grandmother sent me a sizable check, which I never received one time. My water bill I found on my sidewalk. We've gotten people's pension checks delivered to our house.”
Whether telegraphed messages from Republicans can influence voter’s likelihood to vote by mail remains up in the air.
Political consultant John Sellek says focusing on the 30,000-foot conversation risks losing what remains immutable on the ground: Like it or not, Democrats and Republicans alike are doing everything they can to bank the votes they need to win. And this year, that means pushing their voters to cast their votes via absentee ballots.
“The local camps on the ground, Michigan campaigns, are still saying, here's what I got to do to win. Those guys can argue all day on MSNBC and Fox, I still know, ‘here are the things I'm going to do to make sure I won this year,’” said Sellek.
Follow Abigail on Twitter: @AbigailCensky