(TNS) — A push to promote absentee voting as a safer alternative during the coronavirus pandemic is not expected to produce widespread fraud, according to election experts, despite President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on mail-in voting in Michigan and other states.
Concerns about the potential for COVID-19 to spread through polling places in the August and November elections motivated Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to mail every registered voter an application to obtain an absentee ballot. The president quickly condemned the decision in a series of statements linking no-reason absentee voting to partisan election interference, claims that are considered misleading and possibly harmful by election clerks and researchers in Michigan.
Testifying before Congres Wednesday, Benson said there is little evidence of election fraud in Michigan, but “in the rare times it does occur, we catch it and we prosecute it.”
Benson, a Democrat, said she anticipates more politicalized attempts to confuse voters about the process of absentee voting and cause residents to “doubt the sanctity of our elections and question the accuracy of the results.” The secretary of state said attempts to misinform Michigan voters about their right to vote by mail are “antithetical to our democracy.”
“I don’t claim to know the intent behind (Trump’s) efforts or remarks, but what I do know is their impact, which will be, and has been, to confuse voters and our electorate,” Benson said.
Daniel Manville, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Michigan State University, said incidents of voter fraud are rare. Election laws are more often broken by mistake instead of attempts to swing races, he said, and have virtually no impact on the outcome of national elections.
There are few reports of voter fraud in Michigan during the past decade, according to state data, and incidents of election law violations rarely result in arrests or convictions.
State data shows 279 election law offenses were reported from 2008 to 2018, and 24 arrests were made. There was only one arrest made for election law violations in 2018, the last gubernatorial election, and one arrest in 2016, the last presidential election. The state’s data does not include details on the violations.
Manville said claims that no-reason absentee voting opens the door to fraud are unfounded.
“They have no proof, they have nothing,” he said.
Vincent Hutchings, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, said there's no evidence that mail-in voting has the potential to result in increased fraud.
“Voter fraud, in general, is relatively rare in the United States, whether we’re talking about via mail or other sources,” he said. “There are isolated incidents here or there, but they are infinitesimal in their magnitude. That is what study after study after study has shown.”
The point of mail-in voting is to make the electoral process easier during a global pandemic, Hutchings said.
This year marks the first presidential elections to implement changes to the Michigan Constitution adopted through a ballot initiative supported by 67 percent of voters. The 2018 ballot initiative allows all citizens to vote by mail for any reason up to 40 days before the election and constitutionalized existing law providing military members and overseas voters an absentee ballot at least 45 days before an election.
Absentee ballots accounted for 99 percent of votes cast in May elections held during the height of Michigan’s COVID-19 response. There were zero reports of fraud, Benson said.
Benson said she expects a record number of absentee ballots cast in the August primary and November general election.
“Our current record is 1 million, about 30 percent of voters, voting by mail in a presidential election,” Benson said. “That was in 2016. We anticipate that will at least double if not triple in November and we’re preparing for that.”
Trump has claimed, without providing evidence, that no-reason absentee voting is susceptible to widespread fraud and threatened to pull federal funding from Michigan. The president launched his criticism on the eve of his visit to Ypsilanti in May and pushed the issue the next day after a listening session with black leaders in Michigan.
“Who knows who’s signing it? Who knows that it ever gets to your house? Who knows if they don’t pirate?” he said. “Obviously there’s going to be fraud. We’re not babies. There’s tremendous fraud.”
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, a Michigan native, said a national vote-by-mail system “would open the door to a new set of problems such as potential election fraud and ballot harvesting.” Ballot harvesting, the process of collecting and turning in absentee ballots by political operatives, is already illegal in Michigan.
McDaniel struck a softer stance on clerks sending absentee ballot request forms to registered voters, which is what happened in Michigan. Trump and McDaniel have voted by mail in the past.
“Personally, I don’t really have an issue with absentee ballot request forms being sent out to voters as much as ballots being sent directly to voters,” McDaniel said during a call with reporters on May 18. “I think the request form is one mechanism of ensuring that that owner is who they are, as long as you keep those signature verification laws in place.”
Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck said his office experienced a bump in inquiries about election security after Trump’s recent remarks. Roebuck’s office, which serves a county Trump won by 30 percentage points, experienced a similar effect in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.
Roebuck said objections to mail-in voting are often rooted in the idea that applications mailed to the wrong address can be filled out by anyone. That’s not true, he said.
Absentee ballot applications require a signature that is matched against the signature in a person’s voter file. You would need to know a person’s name, date of birth and be able to accurately forge their signature to commit fraud, Roebuck said.
Though voters may see an application addressed to someone who used to live at their residence or someone who is now deceased, Roebuck said it would be extremely difficult to cast a vote on their behalf.
“If your ill intent is to manipulate the system and change a vote, what is the risk versus the reward of that one vote?” Roebuck said. “You’re risking a five-year felony to do that ... I’m not one of these people that say voter fraud doesn’t exist, because the reality is people do bad things sometimes. It’s why we have these protections in place."
Ironically, Roebuck said mailing absentee ballot applications is a helpful tool in cleaning up outdated voter rolls.
“One of the primary ways that we identify someone who is no longer on the voter rolls is that we’ve been notified by the post office that there may be a change of address,” he said.
Michigan Republicans point to one notable case of election fraud involving absentee ballots as evidence of Democrats tampering in elections.
Southfield City Clerk Sherikia Hawkins was charged with six felonies for alleged election fraud last year in connection with the 2018 election. Hawkins allegedly altered 193 absentee ballots to resolve discrepancies between absentee ballots logged into the Qualified Voter File and absentee ballots run through the tabulator on election day.
Benson said the incident did not alter the election results, and all votes were ultimately counted. Hawkins is awaiting trial.
The White House released a fact sheet outlining several notable cases of voter fraud compiled by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The report’s most recent Michigan case involved Brandon Hall, a conservative activist and Trump campaign volunteer, who was convicted of 10 counts of ballot petition fraud in the 2012 election.
Only two of the Michigan cases highlighted by the White House involved the fraudulent use of absentee ballots.
Four Hamtramck men were each convicted on one felony for unlawful possession of an absentee ballot related to the city’s 2013 August primary election. The men worked together to deliver absentee ballots from people who aren’t related to them.
A Benton Harbor man was convicted of five felonies related to election fraud in 2007. He was found guilty of possessing absentee ballots that didn’t belong to him and paying patrons at a soup kitchen $5 to cast an absentee ballot in a 2005 local recall election.
In response to the recent surge in concerned residents, the Ottawa County Clerk’s Office created a special section of its website dedicated to informing voters about election security. Roebuck said he also anticipates political actors to spread misinformation ahead of the 2020 election.
Benson last week announced her participation in VoteSafe, a voting rights organization co-chaired by Michigan’s former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The Michigan arm of the national group is led by Benson and former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Battle Creek.
VoteSafe advocates that all states ensure voters have access to mail-in ballots and safe in-person voting sites during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During testimony before a House subcommittee last month, Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons accused Benson of pursuing an activist agenda by mailing out absentee ballot applications.
“My agenda is to make sure every voter knows their right to vote by mail that was enshrined by voters in our state constitution in 2018,” Benson told reporters last week in response. “That is my job as the chief election officer of the state of Michigan.”
©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.