The ongoing war over voting rights and voter suppression has developed a new battleground in recent weeks: The debate over whether every citizen should have a right to vote by mail in the era of COVID19, thus ensuring that no American has to fear risking his or her health in order to vote.
On one side of this issue is the president of the United States, who has taken to Twitter to denounce a practice that is time tested and secure—and has backed up these denunciations with threats to withhold funding from states, like Michigan, that have sought to ensure voting by mail is universally accessible to every voter.
The other side is the vast majority of voters, millions of whom have voted by mail for decades, and several governors and secretaries of states on both sides of the aisle who in recent months have embraced voting by mail as a way to ensure democracy is preserved amidst the current pandemic.
In fact, 46 states have provided a way for every citizen to vote from home this election year. This option is permanent in 34 states, and 12 more temporarily granted their voters this right due to the coronavirus outbreak this spring.
The enormous, bipartisan popularity for a long-accepted and convenient method of voting was apparent in 2018 in Michigan, when the vast majority of our voters cast ballots to amend our state constitution to ensure every voter had a choice to vote by mail in every election.
Recognizing the importance of putting voters first, we quickly implemented the new policy so voters could exercise their right to vote by mail this year. We saw absentee voting rates skyrocket in our March 10 presidential primary, before there were any known cases of coronavirus here.
Then in early May we held local elections—during the height of the pandemic—primarily by mail and demonstrated that even in the midst of a crisis, safe and secure elections are possible. We mailed every registered voter an application and instructions to request their ballot through the mail and vote from home. The result was that turnout doubled from previous May elections and 99 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail or at a ballot dropbox. Meanwhile, despite the record turnout, in-person voting locations were calm, clean and safe. There were zero reports of fraud.
The success of both elections made very clear that voters want the option to vote by mail and that even in a pandemic elections can be safe, secure, and accurate when voters know they can and how to vote by mail.
Both elections also taught executive officials in Michigan like me valuable lessons, and we’re now asking our state legislature to adopt policy to further protect our voters and their rights. There are four primary ways that legislation could improve voting by mail in Michigan. I include them here as they would likely be helpful in other states as well.
• First, enabling election workers to process—but not count—mail-in ballots prior to Election Day would give them a better chance of reporting results on Election Night, and make it possible for more workers to deploy to polling locations on Election Day. Such laws are already in place in at least 18 other states. Many Michigan clerks say ideally they would have three full additional days to process ballots to prepare for the Election Day vote count.
• Second, we want the legislature to codify our guidance that clerks should contact voters when they receive an absentee voter ballot with a signature that they believe does not match the signature on the voter’s application and/or registration. This would provide assurance to voters that their ballots were accepted when lawfully cast and be in the best interest of our elections.
• Third, unfortunately Michigan clerks saw many ballots arrive in the mail after Election Day this spring. Legislation that would allow all ballots postmarked by Election Day in November to be counted would give voters the same flexibility and clarity they have when filing their taxes.
• Finally, the majority, but not all election clerks in Michigan maintain a permanent absentee-voter list. This is for voters who have stated that they want to be mailed an application to vote by mail ahead of every election. There are about 1.3 million people on this list, out of about 7.7 million registered voters in the state. Legislation could make maintenance of such lists a requirement for all jurisdictions, ensuring that all voters are afforded the same opportunity.
But even if these policy changes aren’t made, we know already that we have the right tools and the dedicated election clerks to be successful administering November’s election, no matter the public health environment.
Based on what we saw in early May, we are scaling up for November’s election and again ensuring every voter is mailed an application and instructions to vote by mail. Our goal is to ensure that every Michigan citizen has the certainty and clarity that our elections will be held on schedule, and that they will have the option to vote safely from home, or to visit a voting location with appropriate safety protocols in place.
Our experience in Michigan, where we’ve seen such widespread support for and success of voting by mail, clearly demonstrates that we are on the right side of this issue, and the right side of history. We will continue educating voters of their rights and how to exercise them, no matter what misinformation might come from the president or anyone else.