Benson: Voters need clear choices of how to vote in pandemic

FILE – In this March 5, 2020, file photo, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at a news conference in Lansing, Mich. Michigan’s top election official said Tuesday, May, 19, 2020, that absentee ballot applications will be mailed to all 7.7 million registered voters for the August primary and November general election. Benson said the step — announced as the state continues to confront the coronavirus pandemic — ensures no one “has to to choose between their health and their right to vote.” (AP Photo/David Eggert, File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — 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.

Secretary of State Jocelyn 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.

Benson said long lines and other problems seen in primaries in Atlanta, Milwaukee and Los Angeles show that elections, particularly prominent ones, “are not the time to test new technology.” The second and more significant lesson, she told The Associated Press in a recent interview, is that “voters need clear choices — both vote by mail or vote in person safely.”

The March presidential primary was the state’s first major election in which voters could cast absentee ballots by mail or return them in person for any reason following passage of a 2018 constitutional amendment. The alternative, used by 39% of the electorate, is seen as especially crucial during the pandemic. Benson estimated that at least 1 million voters, “if not 2” million, will vote by mail for the first time in November.

The Democrat drew Republicans’ ire last month after announcing all 7.7 million voters will be mailed absentee ballot applications for the elections, not just 1.3 million already on a permanent list to get the form every time. A judge on Thursday refused to stop the mailing, saying an application is merely an application and two GOP state House candidates who sued showed no “irreparable harm.”

Benson employed the strategy on a smaller scale for the May local elections, and there was record turnout. November will pose a much bigger test.

“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. But then at the same time, you cannot limit options to vote in person,” she said.

There are no plans to consolidate polling locations in November. Benson said, however, that polling places may only be able to handle half their regular volume due to social-distancing and safety requirements.

“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. You have less crowding on Election Day, less lines on Election Day as result and more people voting by mail,” said Benson, who is pushing the Republican-led Legislature to pass a bill to let clerks start processing absentee ballots the day before Election Day. The actual ballots would still stay inside secrecy envelopes until counting on Election Day.

She said the structuring of in-person voting will depend on data collected in the months ahead showing how many people request absentee ballots.

Benson recently announced she will participate in listening sessions in places with low turnout historically — precincts in Detroit, Grand Rapids, 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.”

Voter outreach must be “more than just about a voter registration drive or inspiring people to vote or cutting through perhaps apathy,” Benson said. “It’s really about delivering educational information about the nuts and bolts of how you vote and what your rights are. 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.”