Flint Township clerk voices frustration over absentee application mailings

LANSING — The Michigan Senate Elections Committee recently heard testimony from clerks across the state who expressed frustration with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s handling of absentee voter application mailings.

During a hearing on June 24, several Michigan clerks testified that Benson’s recent mass mailing of absentee ballot applications has caused disruptions in their local election efforts. Clerks also expressed doubt about the security of the Michigan Voter Information Center (MVIC), a new online absentee ballot application that was launched by Benson earlier this year.

Flint Township Clerk Kathy Funk, who participated in the hearing, told the Elections Committee that she did not receive a heads-up about the state’s mass mailing of absentee applications, which were sent to all registered voters in her jurisdiction— including those who were not on the township’s permanent absentee voter mailing list. She said that the sudden influx of absentee applications has caused a backlog of work for her office.

“The secretary’s actions have been detrimental to us on many different levels,” Funk said. “Budgetary; voter confidence; failure to communicate; and now, a blatant disregard for the way we process absentee voter applications.”

Funk, who also serves as the president of the Genesee County Clerk’s Association, said that she and her fellow clerks were not given a choice to opt out of the mass mailing and weren’t even made aware of it until voters started contacting them last week.

Other clerks who testified at the hearing also remarked that the state’s online absentee ballot application system lacks safeguards and leaves the door open for voter fraud.

“I am concerned because the voter submitting this application does not sign the application upon completion digitally,” said Brighton City Clerk Tara Brown. “The signature is pulled from the Qualified Voter File and populated onto the application. Checking the voter’s signature before sending a ballot is a very important step to confirm the ballot being sent is actually to the voter who requested it.”

Funk said that Benson’s mass mailing push, combined with a difficulty in verifying MVIC digital signatures, could cause major problems for her office come election time.

“It’s taken us more than a week to print out just one of the (MVIC) applications with the signatures showing on the application,” she said. “When we have a mass amount of applications coming in, I can’t guarantee at this point that all 100 percent of those are valid signatures because I don’t have (a way) to check against the application.”

In a letter to Benson’s office, Funk called the mass mailing of absentee applications a “costly waste” to taxpayers at a time when clerks need additional financial support associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. She also urged the secretary of state to communicate with local clerks ahead of time and to gather their input for decisions that affect their jurisdictions.