LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The state has spent $4.5 million to mail absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters ahead of the August primary and November general election in Michigan, a crucial presidential battleground.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, announced the move Tuesday as part of the state’s efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic. The cost will be covered by federal coronavirus relief funding.
“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” Benson said in a statement. “Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.”
The step came weeks after Michigan saw record turnout for May local elections when the state, for the first time, discouraged in-person voting in part by sending absentee ballot applications to all voters in affected jurisdictions without first being asked to do so.
The latest mailing was criticized by Republicans in the GOP-led Legislature.
“Local clerks are the ones who have always handled these requests, not the secretary of state,” said Sen. Ruth Johnson of Holly, a former secretary of state. She accused Benson of “taking unilateral actions with no input and questionable motives.”
Rep. Julie Calley of Portland said the $4.5 million would have been better spent on protective equipment for polling places and election workers — plexiglass dividers, masks, gloves and sanitizer — and on machines to more quickly process surging absentee ballots.
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. About 1.3 million, or 17% of the electorate, are already on such lists.
The March presidential primary was the first major election in which people could vote absentee without needing an excuse following the approval of a 2018 ballot initiative.
Nancy Wang, executive director of the Voters Not Politicians advocacy group, applauded Benson and called on the Legislature to “protect voters’ lives” by authorizing that absentee ballots be mailed to voters instead of first requiring them to return the application.
“Automatically sending ballots with prepaid return postage will cut the red tape, save money and empower all Michiganders to vote safely in this year’s elections,” she said.
Also Tuesday, a federal judge approved a consent decree requiring the state to provide accessible absentee ballots to blind voters in future elections. In response to a lawsuit filed during the pandemic, the state had agreed to let blind voters use software to complete an absentee ballot in the recent local elections.