GOP intransigence in Michigan could lead to a chaotic presidential election

A top Michigan official warned on Wednesday that, unless the Republican-controlled state Legislature passes a law to speed up the reporting of election results, it would be responsible for a chaotic and destabilizing election this fall.

“Continued inaction by lawmakers, when we need their support and partnership now more than ever, will equate to a dereliction of duty,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said on a conference call with reporters.

Benson, a Democrat, is the state’s top election official. She wants current laws changed in order to allow vote counters to be able to open mail-in and absentee ballots at least one day before Election Day.

Benson said that if clerks are not enabled to start arranging the ballots for counting before Election Day, this will increase delays in reporting the results. For one thing, she said, “every single one of [the election officials] is already going to be dealing with several other issues” on the day of the election.

“That will create a space to enable bad actors to falsely raise questions about the sanctity and security of our elections. That reality has implications not just for our voters but for the entire country,” she said.

Whether Benson succeeds in prodding the Legislature into action could have national consequences. Michigan will be a key swing state in November, and a delay in results due to the widespread use of mail-in and absentee ballots could leave the country in limbo for several days, or even weeks, as it waits to find out who won the election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, announces her proposed settlement of a redistricting lawsuit on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, at her office in Lansing, Mich. Under the deal subject to court approval, at least 11 state House districts would be redrawn for the 2020 election. (David Eggert/AP Photo)
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. (David Eggert/AP Photo)

And in a year that’s already seen a global pandemic, a major recession and months of protests against police brutality, some warn that a delay could be nothing less than catastrophic for the country.

There are three swing states that are most vulnerable to lengthy delays because they currently require election officials to wait until Election Day to start processing ballots.

Remarkably, these three states are the same that swung the 2016 election: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

In the call with reporters, Benson did not mention President Trump by name. Trump, however, has repeatedly made unsupported claims that increases in mail-in voting will lead to fraud, cheating and even manipulation by foreign governments. He’s also suggested that he might contest any election result that has him losing to Joe Biden, adding another layer of uncertainty to an already fraught election.

There is massive interest among voters in voting by mail, or absentee, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Michigan, Benson said there have been 2 million requests for absentee ballots for next week’s primary election, which is double the amount of Michigan’s previous record for requests, and is much higher than the 1.4 million votes cast in the state’s August primary four years ago.

State Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Republican who was previously secretary of state and now chairs the Senate Elections Committee, earlier this year introduced Senate Bill 757, which would allow election clerks in cities of 40,000 people or more to start opening absentee and mail-in ballots the day before Election Day. It passed unanimously out of the committee but has not been brought up for a vote by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who is also a Republican.

Trump’s attacks on the mail-in ballot process appear to have significantly undermined confidence among some Republican voters.

Polling shows a huge partisan breakdown that appears to have grown sharper since a few months ago, a likely result of Trump’s sustained campaign of misinformation about mail-in voting. A mid-July poll by Yahoo News and YouGov found that 81 percent of voters who plan to vote for Trump want to vote in person, while 70 percent of likely Biden voters want to do so by mail.

And 54 percent of Trump voters said they are “very worried” about “fraudulent postal voting,” compared with just 12 percent of Biden voters.

Between half and two-thirds of Americans support allowing anyone to vote by mail who wants to, based on numerous recent polls, including the Yahoo News/YouGov survey.

Five states — Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Hawaii — already conducted their elections entirely by mail before the COVID-19 crisis created a new sense of urgency to expand this option for more voters. California, Arizona and Montana conduct most of their elections by mail, and another 24 states allow anyone who wants to cast a mail ballot to do so.

Only 17 states previously required a specific excuse, such as serious illness or unavoidable travel. Since the onset of COVID-19, most of those 17 states have removed the excuse requirement for their primaries, but many questions remain about how the fall elections will be handled.

Yahoo News has done extensive reporting over the past few months on mail-in voting, how it works and how much fraud there is in elections. Claims of widespread fraud are false. Fraud occasionally occurs, and mail-in voting is slightly less secure than in-person voting. But incidents of fraud are exceptionally rare, and some states that already conduct their elections entirely by mail have established practices to prevent wrongdoing.

These policies include allowing voters to track their ballots online by a unique bar code and training election officials on how to properly match a voter’s signature on the ballot to their signature on file.

A women is helped by an election worker to put her ballot in a box while voting from her car in the parking lot of Lavell Edwards Stadium on the campus of Brigham Young University on June 30, 2020 in Provo, Utah.(George Frey/Getty Images)
A woman is helped by an election worker while voting from her car in the Utah primary on June 30. (George Frey/Getty Images)

The disparity between Republicans and Democrats in how they view mail-in voting has led some election experts to fear a nightmare scenario in which many more Republicans than Democrats vote in person on Election Day this fall, Nov. 3, skewing the initial returns and setting the stage for Trump to falsely claim victory and wreak havoc on the country.

“[If] Biden becomes the winner as the absentee ballots are counted in Philadelphia or Detroit, that’s a recipe, if it’s close, for a really ugly election scenario,” said Rick Hasen, one of the nation’s top election law experts, on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.

Michigan and Pennsylvania both have the same ballot security measures. They require that officials match signatures that are on the outside of the ballot envelope to voter signatures on file.

Benson is also calling for the Michigan Legislature to require clerks to contact voters whose signatures appear not to match, in order to give them an opportunity to verify whether the ballot is theirs.

In Pennsylvania, the Legislature is also controlled by Republicans, but as in Michigan the secretary of state — an elected statewide position — is a Democrat, along with the governor.

Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar told the Washington Post that she had persuaded the Legislature to allow election officials to begin opening mail-in ballots at the beginning of Election Day rather than at its conclusion — but that this was still far from enough time to avoid a lengthy delay in reporting results.

Boockvar’s office told Yahoo News that she is “in conversations” with the Legislature to allow clerks to open ballots “as much as three weeks in advance of Election Day.”

Wisconsin has a different system, requiring voters to show identification to clerks when requesting a mail-in ballot. The state also requires a witness signature to accompany the ballot when it is turned in. Election office spokesman Reid Magney told Yahoo News he did not know of any serious attempts to give vote counters more time to open mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day.

Benson, the Michigan secretary of state, said it is “common practice” in 18 states to allow clerks to open ballots ahead of Election Day, including in Florida, another crucial swing state, which gives election officials more than three weeks to get their mail-in ballots ready to count.

Kathy Boockvar (D) Pennsylvania is interviewed at Roll Call in Washington, D.C. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Benson said that with 2 million requests for next week’s state primary, compared with just one 1 million mail-in requests for the state’s presidential primary in March, she anticipates a delay of “at least one or two days before we get results in most races.”

In the fall, Benson said, she expects 3 million mail-in ballot requests. To put that number in perspective, only 4.5 million Michigan voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election.

Benson did not give an estimate for how long a delay that might lead to.

“The only thing that at this point that can help mitigate that, and get our results sooner,” she said, “is the passage of legislation to enable people to start processing these ballots earlier.”


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