We the People: A Look at Mail-in Voting

Fears around the logistics of having people crowd into voting precincts amid a pandemic have reignited old debates around absentee ballots. Behind the scenes, people are working to ensure safe, informed and accessible voting. Plus, community members make their issues known.

mail-in voting

The upcoming November 2020 election has baggage. Disinformation is amok. In June, the U.S. Postal Service implemented a restructuring that dismantled high processing sorting machines. There were no notices – just letter collection boxes disappearing from streets and steel sorting machines in dumpsters.

Social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 makes standing in line to vote undesirable – for some, impossible. Ask voters in Wisconsin. They didn’t get the absentee ballots they requested and had little choice: Don’t vote or stand in line.

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In some states, lawmakers are at odds about making voting more accessible. For instance, Mississippi’s Supreme Court ruled that having a preexisting condition that puts a voter at a higher risk does not automatically create a temporary disability for absentee voting purposes.

And there’s the president of the United States. He has launched an offensive on mail-in voting that has reverberated a debate across this nation. The debate sparked discussions about voter suppression and voter confusion on one side, and voter fraud and rigging the election on the other.

The president is on the side of fraud and election rigging. If this was entertainment, it would be a reality show with villains purposed with blindsiding one another for the chance to win a million dollars. But this is not entertainment.

This is real life, with real people. We live in a democracy, and elections are one of the most important ways that we contribute. And if you’ve felt like your civil liberty to vote has been trampled on to benefit a party line, you’d have a legitimate claim.

To say that there could be post-traumatic stress when it comes to acts of suppressing the vote could be a real thing. Aghogho Edevbie is the Michigan state director with All Voting is Local, a nonprofit whose priorities include removing barriers to the box that cause long lines, and ensuring fair rules for registering to vote and casting a ballot.

Edevbie says, “There is always a little bit more caution about voting because of how precious of a right it is for the Black community, for minorities across the board, and how it is something we have had to fight for.” In other words, we are already a cautious people. Barriers between a voter and a ballot are an affront to the people marginalized, but also to every person who cares about the right to vote.

As we make decisions about who to vote for and how to vote, we are seeking truth and information to guide us throughout the process. Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. But what happens when the information you’re receiving is deliberately misleading?

The cost is high, especially in communities where members struggle with civic engagement, intimidation and confusion. In late August, Detroit voters were warned about racist robocalls that provided misleading information about voting by mail. The goal of the calls: to dissuade voters.

The timing behind the scaled-back USPS was fraught with a flurry of questions and criticisms from the public at large. Many demanded answers, and confidence in the system was shattered. Rightly so. Mail delivery had slowed. The assurances of timely deliveries we have grown accustomed to seem a thing of the past.

After much outcry, the post office eventually released a statement announcing the suspension of the reductions recently implemented to mail service. In it, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy states, “The United States Postal Service will play a critical role this year in delivering election mail for millions of voters across the country. There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether the Postal Service is ready, willing and able to meet this challenge.” He goes on to describe plans to handle the volume of mail expected in the November election.

In Michigan, 1.6 million voters cast absentee ballots by mail, at the clerk’s office or at a ballot drop box in the August primaries, the Detroit Free Press reports. Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey says officials in Detroit alone have already received more than 200,000 applications for mail-in ballots for the November election – the largest in its history.

This election will make it into the history books as the one that forced states to ensure voters could exercise options for casting a ballot. With an ongoing public health crisis, states need to respond with options that consider the public’s safety, especially those most vulnerable. This is where the debate about mail-in voting entered the conversation.

To ensure voters are not forced to choose between protecting themselves from contracting the coronavirus and casting a ballot in the general election on Nov. 3, states began to modify or implement mail-in or absentee voting as an option. Neither is new. Every state in the union allows a version of it.

Pandemic aside, five states conduct mostly all-mail elections where ballots are mailed to registered voters. Another 29 states allow registered voters to request an absentee ballot and vote by mail, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2018, Michigan voters passed Proposition 18-3, which increased access to the ballot by authorizing a series of policy measures, including no-reason absentee voting and same-day voter registration.

Leading up to the August primaries, states found themselves under a national microscope, revealing barriers that many voters face, particularly those in disenfranchised communities. States are now tasked with developing solutions that ensure that all voters have safe and equal access to their right to vote.

The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, released a comprehensive plan outlining a November 2020 election that is fair, safe, secure – and accessible to all. In the five key recommendations, the center states the necessity of a universal vote-by-mail option and efforts toward voter education and manipulation prevention. It also asks Congress to provide funding to states to implement the necessary changes needed for the election.

Myrna Pérez, the Brennan Center’s director of voting rights and elections programs, explains, “There is not a debate about mail-in voting. What we are having is a couple of politicians – some with very big megaphones – manufacturing lies about vote by mail with what I think cannot be explained as any intent other than a desire to sow discord, cause confusion, depress enthusiasm and damper turnout. I think every credible expert, including people from all political parties, agree that vote by mail is a necessary option for voters in terms of access to our ballot and promoting public health.”

The Brennan Center stresses that the notion that voting by mail contributes to increased fraud is a false narrative, asserting that, in 2018, more than 31 million Americans cast ballots by mail and that rates of mail fraud are “infinitesimally small.” As we move into the general election, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson are asking for more progress in Michigan’s election system.

In a joint op-ed published in the Detroit Free Press, they urge state lawmakers to further improve the election system to meet the needs of voters by passing bills already introduced to the legislators. Whitmer and Benson say that Michigan set a record in the August primary with voters casting 2.5 million ballots, but that the system, with even the best efforts, was pushed to the limits.

Two of the bills they say should be passed are HB 5987 – which would allow ballots to be counted if postmarked by election day if received within two days – and HB 5991 – allowing clerks to contact voters if they receive a ballot without a signature that matches their registration.

Michigan state’s website maintains that voters were “disenfranchised” in August when approximately 10,600 ballots were rejected and over 80% of those were due to signature verification issues or late arrival. Since then, Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens issued a ruling stating that ballots postmarked before Election Day can be counted up to 14 days after the election.

In response, Benson issued this statement: “No eligible voter should be disenfranchised through no fault of their own for exercising their right to vote by mail. The court’s decision recognizes many of the unique challenges that the pandemic has created for all citizens and will reduce the potential for voter disenfranchisement due to mail delays.”

Another bill, SB 757, would allow clerks to process – but not count – absentee ballots prior to Election Day. Whitmer and Benson stated that results for four of Michigan’s largest counties didn’t come in until the day after the election.

In Michigan, election workers are not able to open ballots until the day of the election. The state estimates that absentee ballot numbers could double or even triple in November. To get results on Election Day, either this process must change or clerk officials have to secure a vast workforce.

In Detroit’s August primary, we saw how this process failed the public. In a city where the pandemic hit hard, access to election workers was apparently a challenge, and, as a result, absentee ballot counting suffered. Winfrey says about 500 workers had been assigned to count absentee ballots. About 300 of those workers left, giving in to more than 20 hours of work, before the count was complete. Every vote was counted – just late.

We can’t wait for SB 757 to pass to prevent what happened in Detroit with absentee ballots from happening again. But there are few choices. Winfrey has since petitioned the state and was granted approval to allow election workers to work in shifts. This move anticipates the volume of absentee ballots Detroit will receive.

Winfrey says, “We will be implementing what is a new process for us, and that is allowing our poll workers to work in shifts. We realize that you can’t expect someone to work a whole 20 to 24 hours, and then expect them not to make human errors or mistakes. So, we know that we are going to count nearly 200,000 ballots.”

But even with the extra manpower – Winfrey is in the process of hiring and training poll workers – and the rotating shifts, don’t expect to hear total counts on election night. “It is going to be an election week as opposed to an Election Day,” Winfrey predicts, “meaning that your results probably won’t be available until Wednesday or Thursday.”

She goes on: “I know for sure that if we get anything like we got in the primary – we counted 80,000 – that we’re not going to be able to do that and have results election night. We want to take our time, we want to be methodical and we want our workers to be refreshed.”

While the road to get to the November election has been marred with distractions, voters shouldn’t be discouraged from exercising their civic duty. Although there has been much discussion about mail-in voting, it is only one option. You don’t get to see your ballot go into a tabulator, but you will have voted. Michiganders can also cast ballots in person on Election Day or vote early by dropping an absentee ballot off in a drop box.

There have been aggressive actions taken to ensure that everyone registered has access to a ballot. Winfrey says that her office is providing 30 secure ballot drop boxes across the city. She has also partnered with the city of Detroit to transform 21 recreation centers into satellite offices that will open on Oct. 8. And the 503 voting precincts across Detroit will be open to receive voters.

Now is the time to make a voting plan. There’s tremendous power in voting. There’s also tremendous reward in taking power away from those who underestimate your dedication to show up and cast a ballot. Make an example out of the people who use suppression, voter confusion and disinformation as tools to encourage you to sit on the sidelines. Show them that you care about your right to vote. 

Voices for Change

We asked Detroiters to tell us the issues heaviest on their minds and hearts as Election Day nears. 

As Election Day nears, on the forefront of my mind is race relations. I was at the Hakeem Littleton protest on my block – San Juan – to show support for my neighbor. I lost my child because a police officer hit me, on the same street I expected to raise my child. So yeah, I’m concerned about race relations and how much I’ll lose to it in my own neighborhood. I love my community. I just want to feel safe in it.

–  I’Sha Schultz-Spradlin, Detroit

As Election Day approaches, I’m thinking about how elected officials, their policies, and the systems they’re part of will protect Black life and LGBTQ life. I’m thinking about if they will forgive student loans, if they will release people in prison who were arrested on marijuana charges. If they will work toward creating an America that is safe and just. No matter what they do, the system is not set up to be safe and just for everyone.

– Amber Lewis, Detroit 

I know this election is presidential, and we kind of know what each person stands for, but if it’s local elections, I would like to know what the issues are and what’s on the ballot, and going in-depth because we, Black and brown people, never really hear about what this or that politician will do for us. I think that’s very important around voting. Not dumbing it down, but making it more accessible to people. 

– Ndubisi Okoye, Detroit 

The issue most on my mind this election season is probably race relations, and I’m not saying that to say that they’ll magically be fixed if Biden wins. But I know for a fact things will get a lot worse if we continue with a president who allows people to feel emboldened enough to take up arms and shoot at others with impunity. Was Biden originally my pick? No. Am I happy about having to choose him? No. But I’d rather it be him than that orange guy, 10 out of 10 times.

– Fletcher Sharpe, Grosse Pointe Park

Resources

Apply for an absentee ballot at mvic.sos.state.mi.us/avapplication

Absentee ballots can be mailed into your clerk’s office until Oct. 20. Past this date, you must drop off your ballot at your clerk’s office or into an official drop box.

You can register to vote online until Oct. 19 at michiganvoting.org. Past this date, you must register in person at your clerk’s office. 

The Detroit Bus Company is organizing free rides to the polls. Sign up to be a volunteer or request a ride at thedetroitbus.com

Volunteer to be a poll worker in Detroit at detroitmi.gov/departments/elections

Volunteer to be a poll worker in Oakland County at oakgov.com/clerkrod/elections

Volunteer to work on Election Day in Macomb County at macomb-mi.gov/500/working-elections

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