Michigan's former top elections official said that Democrats' decision to send unsolicited absentee ballot applications to nearly 8 million voters may violate state laws.
Former Republican secretary of state Ruth Johnson said her successor, Democrat Jocelyn Benson, may have made an "illegal" decision that "threatens the integrity of elections" by ordering state officials to distribute millions of mail-in ballot applications. Benson's decision contradicted legal precedent and the secretary of state's own election manual, which mandates that "clerks may not mail absentee voter applications without having received a verbal or written request," according to Johnson.
"For decades, getting applications to voters has been the job of local clerks. What Benson is doing is possibly illegal—I think it is," Johnson told the Washington Free Beacon. "It oversteps and threatens the integrity of our elections."
President Donald Trump criticized Benson's decision in a May tweet, calling her a "rogue Secretary of State." While the comment received pushback from Democrats, local and state officials have expressed concerns that expanded mail-in voting opens the door to fraud in an important swing state. Allegan County clerk Bob Genetski (R.) told the Free Beacon that Benson has "made it a lot easier for people to take advantage of the system" by circumventing local election officials who have a specialized knowledge of voters in their area. He called the situation "extremely frustrating," saying that state officials are not well-positioned to prevent fraud.
"My local clerks know their voters, they know the areas in their districts, and the state does not," he said. "Nobody was asking the state to take this over, and it's very concerning the direction things are going."
Johnson said that she has received reports of the state sending ballot applications to a wide range of non-eligible voters, including those who have died, moved, or are not of legal voting age.
"We have a letter from a 16-year-old who received an application, and I also received a text about a noncitizen who was sent an application," Johnson said. "This really strips away the integrity of our elections. It creates opportunity for fraud."
According to Genetski, concerns over voter fraud are not hypothetical. He claimed that, in his county, one former lakefront property owner from another state is attempting to vote despite selling his in-state home years ago. Those are the types of scenarios that only a local, rather than a state official, would be able to rectify.
Michigan Secretary of State spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer told the Free Beacon that it was "within the Secretary's authority to mail applications" and that forging someone else's signature on an application is "rarely attempted."
Benson defended her decision to send absentee ballot applications to the state's nearly 8 million voters by claiming that it is "significantly harder to successfully forge someone's signature than it is to create a fake ID" during a June 9 call with AARP members. Johnson disputed the claim, calling it "simply not accurate." She said local election officials may lack the resources to handle the uptick in absentee ballots stemming from Benson's unsolicited sending of applications.
"How do you check when you have hundreds of thousands of people who vote? Local election officials have to compare all of those signatures," she said. "That's why it's illegal for election officials to send out absentee ballot applications unsolicited."
While Michigan allows residents to vote absentee for any reason, voters are typically required to send a ballot request to their local clerk. State election law also requires those who register to vote online or through the mail to show their local clerk a state-issued ID prior to Election Day. According to Genetski, "as soon as Benson took office, her office said that law shouldn't be enforced."
Johnson, who currently serves as chair of the state senate's elections committee, has asked those who receive erroneous absentee ballot applications to alert her in an attempt to "ensure the people of Michigan have secure and fair elections." But she said compiling such applications can be difficult, given that many people immediately throw them away.
Johnson added, "We're not getting any accountability, any transparency" from Benson.
On June 9, Republican activist Tony Daunt filed a lawsuit against Benson alleging that the state has failed to clean up its "bloated and inaccurate" voter rolls. The lawsuit claims that northern Michigan's Leelanau County has a registration rate of 102 percent, meaning that there are more registered voters than people of voting age. Wimmer said the suit "seeks to gain media attention using debunked claims and bad statistics to delegitimize our elections."
A similar lawsuit was filed in December against the city of Detroit, alleging that its voter rolls contain 511,786 registered voters despite only 479,267 residents being eligible to vote.
"Jocelyn Benson was given ample notice to clean up the state's voter rolls, and her failure to do so threatens the integrity of every Michigander's vote," Daunt said in a statement. "Failure to maintain updated and accurate voter rolls violates federal law and undermines the principle of free and fair elections."
Update 6/16/2020 11:18 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from the Michigan Secretary of State