In a first, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office automatically sent absentee ballot applications to all 740,000 registered voters in those municipalities — about 10% of the electorate — to discourage in-person voting in a state where more than 4,000 people have died from coronavirus complications. Turnout was expected to be more than twice what is typical for May elections.
Voters were deciding school tax, bonding and other proposals. Benson, a Democrat, said Monday that more than 140,000 people had voted by mail, “demonstrating that even in times of great uncertainty, people want to vote and they want to weigh in on important local issues.”
Each jurisdiction was still required to have at least one place for in-person voting. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March used her emergency powers to expand absentee voting by letting the state mail ballot applications with postage-paid return envelopes to every voter in roughly 50 jurisdictions and to provide them directly to new registrants.
Deborah Watts, a 66-year-old retiree, voted Tuesday on the third floor of Warren City Hall, just north of Detroit. After she was let through a locked door, she kept 6 feet (1.8 meters) from another voter who was using the single machine. A clerk's staffer wiped it down after each use.
Watts, who said she felt safe, said she misunderstood the application process. “But I still wanted to vote, so I came out here to vote,” she said. Erin Jones, 42, of Warren, said she received an application some time ago. Mistakenly believing it was an actual ballot, Jones set it aside and didn't look at it until Friday. By then, it was too late to submit the application.
So, she voted in person on Tuesday. “I felt fine the whole time,” Jones said, adding “it was weird” that there was so few people around. Normally in Michigan, it is up to voters to ask their local clerk for an absentee ballot. Some communities let voters request to join a permanent list to get an application every election, while others do not.
Absentee voting already is easier in the state under a 2018 constitutional amendment that lets voters cast an absentee ballot for any reason. More than 877,000 people voted absentee in the March 10 presidential primary, 39% of the nearly 2.3 million votes cast.
The state reported its first COVID-19 cases the same night that Joe Biden won the Democratic contest. Whitmer, who is thought to be among contenders to be Biden’s running mate, has sparred with President Donald Trump about the federal government’s response to the pandemic. And Trump has opposed expanding mail-in voting.
In April, more than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during Wisconsin’s presidential primary tested positive for COVID-19, according to the latest count by state health officials tracking the impact of holding the election in the middle of a pandemic.
Last weekend, the Democratic presidential primary in Kansas was conducted exclusively by mail because of the pandemic. Some Democrats have long argued for greater use of mail balloting as a way to boost turnout, but some Republicans remain wary, suggesting it would not be as secure.
“Today’s election easily could have been postponed and rolled into our August election, instead of risking the health of Michigan election workers,” said Laura Cox, chairwoman of the state GOP. She said Whitmer's stay-at-home order “only applies when it benefits her agenda.”
Benson has said postponing or canceling the election would set a dangerous precedent. She gave communities the opportunity to withdraw or postpone measures on their ballot until later, and half did so. But others proceeded because their schools would not have money to operate without tax votes or for other reasons, Benson said.
The state recruited 1,800 people to help in case election workers were not comfortable working. It also provided masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes to municipalities. “Voters should take assurances with two statewide elections on the horizon, this August and November, we have shown that we can protect your health and your right to vote,” Benson said.
Eggert reported from Lansing, Michigan.