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Local clerks explain absentee ballots

ESCANABA — As the November presidential election draws near, the buzz and controversy around mail-in voting continues to grow, leaving local election officials to answer questions about the safety of absentee ballots.

Unlike some states, Michigan does not use a mail-in voting system, where ballots are mailed to all registered voters regardless of whether or not they would be able to go to the polls in person. Instead, voters can only vote by mail if they have requested an absentee ballot.

However, Prop 3 of 2018, changed the rules for absentee voting in the state by allowing anyone registered to vote in Michigan to obtain an absent voter ballot without providing a reason. Prior to the proposal’s passing, absentee ballots were reserved only for people age 60 or older or who fit other specific criteria that would prevent them from voting in person.

“Because of Prop 3, you don’t have to have a reason to do absentee voting, you can just request it to your local clerk’s office,” said Escanaba City Clerk Phil DeMay.

While both absentee and the mail-in ballots used in the five states where elections are conducted almost entirely by mail can be sent through the Postal Service, DeMay sees Michigan’s system as more secure because of the additional checks conducted to secure an absentee ballot.

“Of course Trump’s saying there could be a potential for issue with the mail in balloting, which there very well could be because it’s a mass mail out. We don’t do that,” said DeMay.

In an effort to make absentee ballots more accessible, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson directed applications for ballots be sent in May to the 7.7 million registered voters across the state. However, sending the applications to the addresses on the voter rolls highlighted a key issue with the mail-in voting process.

“I know we had issues when the Secretary of State mailed out absentee ballot request forms to everyone and we found that there were a lot of applications sent to people who no longer lived at addresses or were deceased, that kind of thing. So if we were just sending out ballots in that same manner, there would be an opportunity for people to submit ballots that they … shouldn’t have access to,” said Delta County Clerk Nancy Przewrocki.

According to Przewrocki, there are a number of reasons the addresses could still have been on file. Generally speaking, the addresses are removed from the rolls when a resident moves to another location in Michigan and registers to vote in their new community. Addresses are also removed when residents move to a different state that shares drivers license information with the state of Michigan. However, if the voter moves to a state that doesn’t share information, never registers to vote at their new address, or there is some other breakdown in the processing system, the rolls will continue to show their old address.

In addition to the ballot applications sent out earlier this year, residents who wish to vote by absentee ballot can reach out to their local municipal clerk for an application. In Escanaba specifically, residents can call or email the city clerk’s office or download an application off the city’s website, www.escanaba.org to begin the process. Voters may request absentee ballots in person by Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. and mailed requests must be received by 4 p.m. on Oct. 30.

After the application is received, the local clerk compares data included on the form to information in a database known as the “Qualified Voter File” to verify the request isn’t fraudulent. Only then will a ballot be mailed to the address requested.

“In that Qualified Voter File what we have is their signature, so when we get that application we can bring it up to verify if this is indeed their signature,” said DeMay.

If the signature is in question, it is brought before the absentee ballot receiving board. If the board still questions the signature, the application is flagged.

“We try to catch that here in the clerk’s office to give that voter time to maybe check with them and make sure it’s them, or we can either spoil that ballot and issue them a new ballot if they feel that wasn’t them — but that’s never the case,” said DeMay.

For those residents who are interested in voting absentee for all future elections, there is a box that can be checked on the application itself. However, once that box is checked, the resident will be sent an application for each subsequent election and not a ballot. This avoids the issue of ballots being sent to addresses where the voter no long resides.

Besides the possibility of ballots reaching the wrong hands, other concerns about the nature of mail-in voting were raised this year after Postmaster General Louis DeJoy ordered the removal of sorting machines and mail deposit boxes across the country. Those actions, which were said to be cost saving measures by the Post Office, led to an uproar from liberal politicians, who claimed the move was politically motivated and designed to prevent ballots from being counted. DeJoy said recently he has halted some of the changes, but Michigan and 13 other states that are suing in federal court filed a motion Sept. 9 to reverse the changes immediately.

While some locations in Michigan have reported slower delivery times for regular mail since the changes were implemented, Przewrocki hasn’t seen issues with ballot requests.

“I would say overall, our absentee ballot system works fine. We haven’t had problems with the Post Office not delivering ballots, but I would also recommend anyone who does vote absentee ballot, mails their ballot back at least a week to 10 days prior to the election. I think that’s when the problems come in is when people are waiting too close to the election to mail their ballots,” she said.

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