County Clerk Says Secretary Of State "Blatantly Disregarded" Law
May 21, 2020
By Jon King / firstname.lastname@example.org
Livingston County’s clerk is speaking out in opposition to a decision by Michigan’s Secretary of State to mail out absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters ahead of the August primary and November general election.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said Tuesday the $4.5 million cost will be covered by federal coronavirus relief funding. The decision was not welcomed by Republicans, who said the money would have been better spent on protective equipment for polling places and election workers and on machines to more quickly process absentee ballots. It also created a Twitter war of words between Benson and President Donald Trump, who erroneously tweeted out that Benson was planning to mail out the absentee ballots themselves. He later deleted that and re-tweeted correctly that was it just applications that were to be sent. But Trump then threatened to hold up further funding by claiming, without evidence, that mail-in voting is susceptible to fraud, although experts say such incidents are rare, especially in national elections. Benson says that by mailing out the applications, "we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote. Voting by mail is easy, convenient, safe and secure, and every voter in Michigan has the right to do it.” She also responded to Trump, pointing out that similar decisions were made by her Republican counterparts in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.
Regardless, Livingston County Clerk Betsy Hundley also dissented against the move, although her opposition was based on the legality of the decision itself. In a statement (posted below), Hundley, a Republican, said while she supported “the right of all registered voters to cast an absentee ballot and encourage all voters who want to vote using an absentee ballot to do so” she contends the law still requires voters who wish to receive an absentee ballot request it in writing from their city or township clerk. Hundley, who serves on the state’s Election Modernization Advisory Committee, says that as recently as the March 10th presidential primary, clerks were prohibited from mailing an absent voter ballot application to all registered voters within their jurisdiction as it required a verbal or written request from the voter.
While Benson similarly sent out absentee ballot applications to all impacted voters in the May 5th election, in which Michigan saw record turnout, an argument could be made that was an unusual circumstance as Gov. Whitmer’s stay-at-home order to combat COVID-19 was still in effect. A move to do so for the August primary and November general election is likely to end up in court. In response to Hundley’s release, Jake Rollow, Director of Communications & External Affairs for the Michigan Secretary of State said that absentee voter applications are mailed nearly every election cycle by both major parties and “countless advocacy and nonpartisan organizations” and that they had “full authority to mail applications to ensure voters know they have the right to vote safely by mail.” He said residents can request an application online at https://mvic.sos.state.mi.us/
However, there is case law that backs up Hundley’s interpretation. A 2008 Michigan Court of Appeals decision involving the Macomb County clerk, ruled against her sending absentee ballot applications to every voter over the age of 60. The ruling noted that election law is expressly under the Legislature's control and "the power to mail unsolicited ballot applications to qualified voters is not expressly stated anywhere in (the) statute." Hundley says the Michigan Constitution provides the legislature the authority to enact laws governing absentee voting and that, “Every Michigan resident should be concerned when the executive branch of government unilaterally determines what laws are valid and will be followed and what laws will be blatantly disregarded even during a time of crisis.”
However, Rollow has since responded back concerning the 2008 court decision, telling WHMI that, “The circumstances of that case are distinct from the current scenario in numerous ways, including:
First - unlike the then Macomb clerk, according to Michigan Election Law, the Secretary of State is the chief election officer of the state with supervisory authority over elections.
Second - in Macomb County the clerk was on the ballot, and sent applications to only a subset of voters, and the court found that subset (age 60 and over) happened to be those likely to favor the clerk's candidacy. Secretary Benson is neither on the ballot nor sending applications to a specific group of voters.
Third - the Macomb case took place before the constitution was amended to give all voters the right to vote absentee, and before the unprecedented coronavirus crisis, which calls on our leaders to take action to ensure all Michiganders' rights and safety are protected.”