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Absentee voting possible under proposed Mich. reforms, but voters must pick up ballots in person

Michigan residents could vote via absentee ballots for any reason under election reforms proposed by Republicans last week, but because the package requires voters to pick up their ballots in person, the change might not make it much easier for some people to vote.

Under the current rules a voter can only get an absentee ballot if they certify that they are 60 or older, expect to be away while polls are open, are physically unable to get to the polls, in jail awaiting arraignment or trial, can’t attend for religious reasons, or will be working as a election official in another precinct.

People who vote absentee for these reasons can order their ballots by mail or online.

About a quarter of all votes in the last two general elections were cast on absentee ballots, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Democrats, voting rights advocates and local election officials have long pushed for no-reason absentee voting as a way to make it easier for more people to participate in elections.

Under laws proposed by Sen. David Robertson (R-Grand Blanc Township) and Rep. Cindy Denby (R-Handy Township) last week all voters would qualify to vote absentee but if they don’t claim one of the already-permitted reasons they would have to pick it up the ballot in person and show photo ID at their local clerk’s office.

Jan BenDor, former Pittsfield township deputy clerk and spokesperson for the Michigan Election Reform Alliance, questions why certain groups of absentee voters should be treated differently.

“Is there a problem with voters who request absent voter ballots doing so fraudulently?” she asks. “What evidence is there? Why would ‘no-reason’ AVs present a new problem of fraud?”

She continued.

In Michigan, your identity for elections purposes has always been your signature, signed in the presence of a sworn election official. This is a very secure system, and it is very hard to put a forged signature past election administrators. Most of them are experts in handwriting identification. My staff could tell the difference between signatures of father and son, with the same name, when they accidentally switched the return envelopes for their AV ballots.

The signature as basic ID, by the way, is the reason you cannot register by mail and immediately apply for an absentee ballot or sign any petitions. You must first vote in person at an election, where you sign your name before a sworn official.

Since the courts overruled the opinion of former AG Kelley that a photo ID requirement was unconstitutional, Michigan has required photo ID at the polls. However, replacing the signature match with a photo match is a poor exchange. It is relatively easy to get a fake photo ID (ask any teenager) and most election workers have a tough time figuring out if that low quality DL photo is really you. (I had a photo that was completely orange.)

Johnson’s proposal would seem to create a double identification requirement for absent voters who wish to skip the reason check box — they would have to match signature AND photo. Why is this useful, when all they have to do now is mail in the application with a signature, and check a box.

Jocelyn Benson teaches election law at Wayne State University and advocated for no-reason absentee voting as the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State in 2010.

“This law sets up a system of preferential treatment for voters who are able to jump through additional hoops to receive their absentee ballot, and may lead to unfounded and unwarranted suspicion of voters who are unable to jump through these hoops,” she said. Benson says we should be “making it easier for all Michigan voters to ensure their voice is heard on Election Day, not just a select few.”

Most states already have no-reason absentee voting and most, if not all, allow people to request their ballots by mail, said Daniel Tokaji, senior fellow of election law at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

Requiring some people to pick up their ballots in person “significantly limits the utility of no reason absentee ballots,” he said.

Tokaji said that it is “not entirely irrational” for the state to attempt to impose some safeguards to prevent absentee voting fraud.

“I don’t want to present the misleading idea that voting fraud is common,” he said. “It’s not, but in those instances where voter fraud has been demonstrated it almost always involves absentee ballots.”

Tokaji said that he’s been worried about expanding absentee voting because people tend to make a lot of mistakes when they vote absentee.

“I think in person early voting is a better solution because election officials are there to help you,” he said, “but election officials don’t really like it because it is more work for them, they’ve got to keep a polling place open for several days. Election officials like no reason absentee voting because it takes the pressure off without a lot of new costs.”

The sponsors of the bills to create a new no-reason absentee voting system — Sen. David Robertson (R-Grand Blanc Township)and “Rep. Cindy Denby (R-Handy Township) — did not respond to requests to talk about the measures.

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