Former SOS Johnson: Vote-by-mail plan for May elections already a disaster

Some absentee ballot applications reportedly going to Georgia due to envelope issues

LANSING, Mich. — Late mail, postage meter issues and poorly designed envelopes are just some of the issues plaguing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s efforts to conduct scheduled May 5 elections primarily by mail.

“It is an absolute disaster,” said Sen. Ruth Johnson, former secretary of state and chair of the state Senate Elections Committee, who has been urging the governor to push the elections to August. “I’ve been begging them to reschedule and consolidate with August, I warned them of all the potential problems and now what we’re seeing is even worse than I feared.”

Under an executive order issued by Whitmer in March, 200 city and township clerks across the state were instructed to proceed with scheduled May 5 elections despite the coronavirus pandemic and the governor’s current shelter-in-place order for all residents in the state. As part of her order, Whitmer ordered Benson’s office to mail all registered voters applications to apply for an absentee ballot along with postage paid return envelopes if they had a May election scheduled.

However, there are now reports that design issues on the return envelope have caused at least some voters’ absentee ballot applications to be sent to the U.S. Postal Service’s Mail Recovery Center — formerly known as the “Dead Letter Office” — in Atlanta, Georgia rather than to their local clerk.

“It’s a window envelope with no return address,” said Johnson, R-Holly. “If someone doesn’t fold their application just right when they put it in it becomes undeliverable.”

In an April 21 email to clerks, Benson’s office recommended that “clerks wait to finalize their orders [for August and November elections] … especially for absent voter ballot outgoing and return envelopes” because of “recommended changes to envelope design to improve mail processing.” Issues with printing the postage on return envelopes has also caused delays with absentee voting applications being returned to clerks.

“In some cases, the post office is having to hand count every application and bill the secretary of state because the postage wasn’t printed properly,” Johnson said. “A clerk had thousands of applications delayed getting to their office because of this.”

Beyond printing issues, delays in Benson’s office actually mailing absentee ballot applications have caused many voters to just receive them this week. With postal service already delayed in many parts of the state due to COVID-19, this leaves little time to complete and return the applications, have them processed by their local clerk, receive a ballot back in the mail, and then use the postal service again to return the completed ballot by May 5.

“We saw these issues in Wisconsin,” Johnson said. “People reported never getting an absentee ballot they requested or a ballot they completed not getting back to the clerk in time to be counted.”

The Wisconsin Elections Commission encouraged all voters to vote by absentee ballot for its April 7 election due to COVID-19 but kept a limited number of in-person voting locations open as in Whitmer’s plan for Michigan’s May 5 elections. But since that election, reports have emerged of widespread issues with absentee ballots getting to and from voters by mail. It was also reported Wednesday by state health officials in Wisconsin that at least 19 people who voted in person or worked the polls at the April 7 election have now tested positive for the coronavirus. Michigan has eight times as many cases as Wisconsin and is the third highest state in the nation for deaths.

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Editor’s note: Copies of Johnson’s April 23 letter to Whitmer and April 21 letter to Benson are attached.