Michigan health experts urge voting absentee to reduce coronavirus risk on Election Day
More than five million people may vote in Michigan elections this year. While the state continues to issue record numbers of absentee ballots, that still means millions could vote in person on Election Day.
With the coronavirus still prevalent, people cramming into polling places or waiting in line for hours before casting a ballot is a recipe for disaster, even if voters abide by safety measures, Michigan health experts said Wednesday in a conference call.
"Wearing masks and social distancing, while it reduces the risk of transmission, it doesn’t reduce the risk to zero," said Dr. Farhan Bhatti, a family physician in Lansing.
“And when you have 3 million people out and about all on the same day, all trying to doing the same thing, there will still be some critical mass of people who could potentially be exposed to the virus, just by going out and exercising their constitutional right to vote.”
Bhatti, Dr. Rob Davidson and Lansing nurse Katie Pontifex — who continues to treat patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — all agreed Michigan voters should take advantage of changes in the law that allow them to use an absentee ballot for any reason. All three made their pitch for voting by mail during a call organized by All Voting is Local, a national advocacy group pushing for reforms to expand access to voting.
In 2018, Michigan voters approved a measure that allows anyone to apply for an absentee ballot without citing a specific reason. This change, combined with the threat of the coronavirus, are key reasons why the state had issued nearly 1.7 million absentee ballots as of Tuesday, far outpacing absentee ballot requests during the last presidential election cycle in 2016.
Not everyone supports voting by mail — some, including President Donald Trump, criticized Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson when she recently announced she would send absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters in Michigan. The president and others, without citing evidence, say increased voting by mail will lead to more cases of election fraud.
Election experts say absentee voting is common and secure. Saginaw County Clerk Mike Hanley said he is helping train poll workers on how to ensure precincts are safe for Election Day. But he's encouraging people to use absentee voting if they can.
"We don't have an alternative to having an election. People do have an alternative to going to the voting place, but again, we think it's important they be protected no matter how they choose to vote," Hanley said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Davidson, a west Michigan emergency room doctor and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare, an organization advocating for broader access to affordable health care, agreed that absentee ballots should be the preferred method of voting this year.
"We should encouraging vote by mail," Davidson said. "It is safe, it is secure and absolutely will reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19."
There are still challenges for some who want to vote absentee. It is not free to mail a ballot, and some ballots may not make it to the appropriate polling place on time.
On Wednesday, the Michigan appeals court ruled election officials may only count those absentee ballots received before polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day. The court also rejected a request for Benson to tell local clerks to provide paid postage on the return envelopes when sending out absentee ballots, according to The Associated Press.
Voters can put ballots in special drop boxes, available around the state. Benson's office has already allocated $2 million in federal funds for these boxes, along with automatic letter openers and other supplies that will help keep clerks safe while handling the onslaught of absentee ballots.
The primary is scheduled for Aug. 4.
Contact Dave Boucher at email@example.com or 313-938-4591.