How Could Voting by Mail Affect the Election? Look at Michigan

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“Election night. It’s this cultural moment for the country. People invite their friends over. The families gather around the television, on the edge of our seats to see who’s going to win.” “We’re about to get to the first results.” “We are about to make a major call.” “People expect results by the 11 o’clock news. That’s just the reality, and we want to meet that reality.” “Yeah, that’s just not going to happen.” This year, Michigan, a state with one of the slimmest margins in 2016, is one of 27 states that has made a major expansion to vote by mail. “Never in our lifetimes has the way people elect their president changed so much in a single year. And it is going to have more fights, more disputes.” “There are several states that only have mail-in voting, including a Republican —” “Wolf, this is playing with fire.” “More media mayhem than anything we’ve seen.” And we may be hearing this word a lot. “Fraud.” These veteran election workers are seriously worried about election night … “Here we go.” “We got some critical calls.” “Yes, we do.” … becoming election week, or even election month. “I don’t know any industry that requires you to stay up 48 hours straight.” “No, no, no.” “Oh, geez.” “And it has huge implications on whether Americans accept the results.” To get a look at how vote-by-mail will change the election, we go to Michigan, where we lift the hood on Election Day. “So we’re in Detroit, which is right about here.” “So Michigan is an amazing place to live.” “A microcosm of the entire country.” “Hard-working, get-it-done ethos.” “Manufacturing.” “Including the auto industry.” “The auto industry.” “The auto industry.” “This is a 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass.” And when it comes to its elections, Michigan has — “The most decentralized system.” Take it from the secretary of state. “Fifteen hundred local clerks in 83 counties, all of whom are, for the most part, independently elected.” And Michigan can’t declare a winner until the results come in from every clerk. Like this guy … … Lansing Clerk Chris Swope. “Michigan has never really hit this. We’ve got the Covid crisis. In addition, Michigan passed Proposal 3 of 2018, which gave a lot of additional voter rights. And one of those was the right to vote by absentee ballot for any reason. So those two things have led to a lot of people voting by absentee ballot more than ever before.” That leaves clerks in a tight spot. They’re getting more mail-in ballots than ever, but they don’t have the tools or time to process them. Let’s review. “Shifting gears to voting by mail.” To process the wave of absentee ballots, Michigan needs more equipment, like high-speed ballot scanners, automatic letter openers, even P.P.E. for the poll workers. The federal government pitched in $11 million, but it’s not enough. And even with the right equipment, it’ll take a long time to process all those envelopes. But unlike many other states, under Michigan law poll workers must wait until 7 a.m. on Election Day to begin opening ballots, which is around the time we head to Lansing to meet up with Chris Swope. “How we doing today?” It’s an early start to a long primary day, a dry run for November. “Are we excited?” “Yay.” “How many of you have done this before?” This is Swope’s army, poll workers aged 17 to 84 … “I think everybody should have a chance to work a precinct.” … who have braved an international pandemic to preserve American democracy, and to handle paper, lots and lots of paper. “I figure we’ll be here at least until 10.” “I’m guessing 11.” “12.” “But she’s going midnight. And she’s one of my best friends.” “I am?” [laughter] “Until you really see it in action or try to do it yourself, I don’t think it really hits you about how much time this actually takes.” Over in Detroit, the largest jurisdiction in Michigan, poll workers were bogged down on Primary Day without some very basic equipment. “We attempted to purchase electronic letter openers, but they were on back order. Approximately 70,000 ballots were returned.” Which means — “Approximately 70,000 will be opened by hand.” That’ll slow things down. Over in Clinton Township, part of the largest county Trump flipped in 2016, Clerk Kim Meltzer says starting the count at 7 a.m. on Election Day leads to totally preventable mistakes. “Most important is the integrity of the election process and the accuracy of the vote. If they’re up for 48 hours straight, could mistakes be made?” Yes. And when they are, it’s Meltzer’s job to … “Find out what happened.” … which means even more time spent sorting out one issue after another. “Scott? Can you give that to Scott? Solved that problem. All right. If it came between having more money or more time, I would rather have more time.” Both Meltzer, a Republican, and Swope, a Democrat, support bills to change election laws to allow ballots to be opened before Election Day, and for poll workers to work in shifts, including a bill introduced by a Republican senator and former secretary of state, Ruth Johnson. “That needs to be done to help those workers. So I’m hoping both those bills go through.” Hers did, six weeks before the presidential election. It gives an extra day to clerks in the largest jurisdictions to open envelopes, but adds additional requirements that could slow the process. Pop quiz. “Do you know when the United States first widespread use of absentee balloting was?” “No. In 1928 or something?” “I think it was in the mid-’90s?” Well, we were going for 1864. And it was just as hotly debated as it is today. Take it away, Charles Sable. “Tell me when.” “All right, go for it.” “We’re here at the Henry Ford birthplace. And when Henry Ford was born here in 1863, Abraham Lincoln was starting to think about the 1864 election. He wanted to make sure that the soldiers in the field of battle were allowed to vote. Lincoln wanted everyone who could vote to vote.” And even then — “It was a partisan battle, except what happened then was the reverse of what’s happening today. The Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, wanted absentee balloting. The Democrats were very much against absentee voting because they felt it was not in their favor politically. And they used the same arguments that Republicans are using today, that it could allow for tampering, coercion, all sorts of manipulation. So it was the opposite of today. Fascinating.” OK, back to the modern day. “As these states are trying to make voting easier, again, based on early C.D.C. guidance, in many cases, their own legislatures are fighting this because of fraud.” Like in Michigan, where the fight is playing out between the current and former secretaries of state. “Absentee isn’t good or bad. It’s more convenient, but you must have in those checks and balances to safeguard the integrity.” In response to the pandemic, Secretary Jocelyn Benson mailed out 7.7 million absentee ballot applications. “This was a mailing of applications, giving people the tools to request a vote by mail.” But for Senator Johnson, the unsolicited mailing opened the door for — “Operatives on both sides that will cheat. Here’s a stack over here, about 500 absentee ballot requests that went to non-qualified people. Here’s one, the people moved 11 years ago, 22 years ago. This person died. That’s a problem for me.” But Secretary Benson says that’s the point. The mailing actually — “Enabled us to better clean up our voter rolls by identifying people who may have moved or have passed away. A secondary benefit has been it’s enabled us to reduce the potential for fraud.” Which studies have shown — “Happens exceptionally rarely. It is so rare. It’s kind of like a narwhal. They exist, but you see them so rarely that they take on a sort of mythical status. I mean, this is a real corrosive, false narrative in the voting system, especially the vote-by-mail system.” To see why fraud is so rare, let’s look at what actually happens to that ballot once you drop it off or mail it in. It starts when you receive your ballot in a sealed envelope, which has another secrecy envelope inside. You fill out your ballot, then slide it into the secrecy envelope, then send it back, either by mail or at a special dropbox. At your local polling station, the envelopes are sorted and opened. One poll worker, who can see your name, but not how you voted, takes the ballot out of the envelope and tears off the identification tab, while another, who can see how you voted but not your name, opens the ballots. And finally, your ballot is scanned and your vote is counted. After repeating this dance almost 18,000 times, it’s past midnight for the poll workers in Lansing. “Michigan election law requires them to be sequestered. They have to work until the job is done.” So after 18 hours, the workers can leave and go home. “Goodnight.” “My name’s Barb Bynum. I’m the Ingham County clerk.” And she’s been awake for — “Well over 24, probably close to 30, 35 hours so far.” Thirty-five hours straight. “Yeah.” How does she do it? “I’m very, very thankful for coffee.” And? “Just a little more dry shampoo. On election night, all of that information comes back to me at the county level to post for public viewing the unofficial election night results. So when people are watching the news, they’re getting their information from the press, who get it from me.” Except one of the counties’ townships has had a computer error, so no results. And Barb’s still up. “And so I’m running on adrenaline and coffee.” It’s a scene many election officials fear it will be even worse in November, when two to three times as many ballots are expected. “So worst-case scenario, if the Legislature fails to act, if the feds fail to give us the resources that we need, we are going to have significant delays in results.” “Some major projections.” And a delay in reporting results in a swing state on Election Day could have serious consequences for democracy. “Now, I’m confident a delay in result does not mean anything is going wrong in the administration of elections. However —” “When you don’t really understand that process, that’s where that kind of uncertainty can be filled in with misinformation or conspiracy theories. It’s so easy for false information to spread. And that could undermine, ultimately, confidence in the process not only in Michigan, but all over the country.” And it doesn’t help when the false information is being spread by the president. “They want to try and steal this election.” “Trump has issued literally dozens of tweets. He’s posted on Facebook, and he’s given countless interviews based on nothing to say that vote-by-mail will delegitimize the entire election.” And there’s one more factor that could delay results even further, and undermine confidence even more — lawsuits. Current Michigan law requires ballots to not just be postmarked by Election Day, but to actually arrive by 8 p.m. to be counted. “At the same time, a new postmaster general, very loyal to Donald Trump, is bringing in new policies that are slowing down the mail.” Fearing these delays could potentially disenfranchise voters, groups have sued to give more time for ballots to arrive. “When you look at the reasons why ballots sent through the mail may be otherwise valid but unable to be counted, a top reason is the ballot was postmarked prior to Election Day, but received in the days that followed.” Like this stack of ballots in Detroit. They arrived on Primary Day, but after 8 p.m. “This one came in about 11:30.” So under the law, none counted. “So that could make a difference. Sure could. So yes, that’s pretty concerning.” Remember, in 2016, President Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. In this primary alone, more than 10,000 ballots were rejected, the majority for arriving past 8 p.m. This is just one of many issues likely to be litigated before and after Election Day in a number of different states. “The states that are full-mail states, like Washington state, it took 10 years to develop its system. Now, every state in the country is being asked to get close to an all-mail election in a few months. It’s daunting.” As a result, the limits of state constitutions are being tested. “It’s the classic building the plane while you’re flying it. And parts are going to fall off.” Facing lawsuits, many officials in battleground states are bracing for impact — Pennsylvania and Ohio over their dropboxes, Wisconsin on their postmarks, Missouri with notary requirements, and many more. “I think a lot of lawsuits, some are often filed on valid legal grounds. Some are also filed as part of a political strategy to sow seeds of doubt in the electorate about the integrity of the process.” “When does a ballot come in? How is it postmarked? Does the postmark have a date? If the postmark doesn’t have a date, how do you count that vote? Suddenly, all of these teeny little issues involving how mail flows through this country become issues for the bedrock of democracy.” “This is Alex.” “And I’m Kassie. We produced this episode of Stressed Election.” “There’s a lot going on in this election, and we want to make sure we take a deep dive into the major issues.” “Stick around for the next episodes. We’re going to cover voting rights, voting technology, disinformation and vote-by-mail.”

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