What will COVID-19 mean for the November election? Secretary of State predicts safe polling

No matter how much COVID-19 is in play this November, and in spite of likely efforts to misinform voters, Michigan citizens will be able to safely and reliably cast a ballot on Nov. 3, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson promises.

Her office will work to ensure "that every voter knows with certainty, even in this time of uncertainty, that the elections will happen and they will happen on time. No amount of chatter or threats will change that, and we are working overtime to prepare clerks for every possible scenario," Benson told a tele-town hall audience May 12.

She didn't mention the day's comments by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner -- but possibly they were on her mind -- speculating that the November presidential election could be delayed. Presidential administrations do not have the power to change the date of an election, it should be pointed out. 

"We want every citizen to know that the election this fall will happen and that they have the right to vote in it regardless of what's changing, in regards to the pandemic or anything else," Benson says.

Based on Michigan's May 5 local elections, under stay-at-home orders, Benson is very optimistic about the Nov. 3 and the Aug. 4 state primary elections. 

In 2018 voters approved Proposal 3, adding a constitutional amendment allowing no-reason absentee voting, including voting early through the mail. 

For elections in 2020, this was "most impactful, especially in this time of this pandemic," she says, "the creation of a right for every citizen to vote by mail. That is crucial as this pandemic continues, that citizens don't have to choose between their health or their vote, and everyone has the ability to vote without leaving their home."

On May 5, "99% of the electorate was able to vote from home," and 25% of eligible voters participated in local elections that would normally bring out around 12%, Benson says. 

"We consider that a great victory for our democracy, and certainly as we move forward with an eye on our August state-wide primary, and our November presidential election, our goal is that every citizen knows the choice they have to vote from home and how to request their ballot and mail it back so they can vote safely." 

The tele-town hall was organized and hosted by Equality Michigan, to discuss topics including the Secretary of State's office streamlining the ability to change one's gender identification on licenses and IDs, the selection process of the new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, and safe and secure voting during the pandemic. 

Voting this year was mostly on the minds of participants. Among the questions Benson received are:

How does one who voted by mail know their vote had actually been counted?

Benson replied, "We're working with our local clerks to have a ballot tracking system in place before November's election. So that you'll be able to go online and verify that your ballot has been sent to you, and once you mail it back you'll be able to verify that it's been received and it's been counted."

If one has no internet access, "you can always also call your local clerk, and they can verify over the phone that your ballot has been received and counted. We keep a record of all of that." There is a state voter database that keeps track of ballots sent, ballots returned, and votes counted. "Your actual vote is not included, by any means, but the fact that the ballot was counted will be in your state-wide voter file." 

What lessons were learned from the May election?

"When you have an election where the turnout more than doubles, that underscores the fact that people want to vote right now. People want to participate in their democracy, even while under a stay-at-home order," she says. It's "an incredible endorsement of the enthusiasm that all of our voters have in our democracy right now." 

Also, "it was an endorsement of the vote-by-mail process... numbers indicate that people will embrace this new right to vote by mail, and put Michigan in a strong position to have a strong election in August and November." 

However, citizens need to "know the full range of options and rights to voting... We know for certain that every citizen will have a right to vote by mail in August and November. But we can't underestimate the heavy lift of voter education that is needed between now and then, to ensure that everyone knows how to access that right." Her office is planning an information campaign through "multiple avenues."

What is Benson's office most-concerned about for the coming elections, if they happen under the same constraints as we've had this spring?

"I'm very optimistic," she says, based on success May 5. "It may take a little bit longer to process and count the ballots once received, but they will be counted." Thanks to Proposal 3's passage, "we have the tools we need, unlike many states, to operate an election during a pandemic." 

"What concerns me most are efforts to undermine the process... to sow doubts in citizens and fears about the integrity of the elections, the fact whether or not they'll be held, the integrity of the process. There's already such a misinformation campaign surrounding that, and that impacts voters' ability to believe and have confidence in the system," she says.

"We anticipate that that's going to escalate more, and people are going to take advantage of the fact that we're in a very high-anxiety moment in our country's history with the pandemic, high levels of unemployment and economic anxiety. What worries me most is about the spread of misinformation about our elections and voters' rights. That is going to happen in Michigan, there will be efforts, strong, well-funded, national, perhaps internationally-led efforts to try to confuse voters about their votes and their rights in our state, and it's going to be up to us to fight through that." 

How is the state prepared to deal with the possible disruption of the election by Russia or other foreign actors? 

"One of the benefits to being a highly decentralized election state with 1,500 local election jurisdictions is that there are very few centralized places where foreign entities can attack the infrastructure of our elections and be effective," Benson says. 

The Secretary Of State's office is working to secure their centralized infrastructure and their election security commission is advising on how to do that. But Benson is, again, concerned that "misinformation campaigns on social media, by foreign entities or others, is going to be critical as well. So all of you can have a play in that, by pushing back on efforts to hack the voters' mind and confuse them about what's at stake in an election, what's truthful about candidates and also about what people can do to cast their votes." 

With a likely high demand for ballots for November, how early will the state allow absentee voting?

The current law allows ballot requests up to 75 days before the election, and they can be returned as soon as 40 days before election day. Voters should have "plenty of time," she says.

In closing, Benson calls on citizens to "stay active, stay engaged, and to see yourselves as leaders in your community, working to cut through misinformation and ensuring every citizen knows that their voice needs to be heard this year.... The real antidote to the challenges and the strife and animosity that we're seeing in Michigan and around the country is by getting informed and engaged."

Other Town Hall Topics:

Secretary of State Benson noted the passing of Aimee Stephens, Detroit-area transgender activist, whose case is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Benson then spoke on previous difficulties transgendered citizens had in getting sex identity changed for drivers licenses and state ID cards. Before, citizens needed a birth certificate, passport, or court order; now "those who would like to correct their sex information on their ID only need to complete a form, go into a branch office, and have their photo taken," she says.

"Recognizing that a driver's license or state ID card is a necessity for all of our citizens, one of my top priorities has been to remove barriers that prevent or limit marginalized communities from accessing vital documents."

Benson also spoke on the 2018 Michigan Citizens Redistricting Commission. Anyone over 18 who has not run for office for the past six years or worked as a lobbyist can apply for a chance to be on the commission. A randomized process will select four Republicans, four Democrats, and five unaffiliated commissioners. They will then redraw district maps for 2021 that will be in place for the next decade. 

"All that's required is that you be a committed citizen," she says. The application deadline is June 1. One can apply at the SOS site.
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.