Secretary of State
Ahead of and following the 2020 general election, Michiganders were inundated with more information about the administration of the election than ever before. Much of this information was inaccurate. Whether spread intentionally or unintentionally, false information about elections results led to confusion and doubt among our citizenry, and a reduction of faith in Michigan’s electoral process. This is dangerous for our democracy. The Michigan Department of State provides the factual information below to provide all Michiganders certainty of what truly occurred in 2020.
Michigan’s elections are carried out by the 1,520 city and township clerks across the state. They are elected or appointed at the local level, and come from both major political parties or have no party affiliation. They are public servants, do their jobs with the highest integrity, and are committed to fair elections in their communities.
Additionally, 83 county clerks play critical roles in administering elections by managing county level contracts with election vendors, generating and distributing election materials, programming election equipment, supporting and supplementing the work of local clerks, and providing information to voters.
The Michigan Bureau of Elections provides guidance and standards to all clerks to ensure elections are carried out uniformly and in accordance with state and federal law across the state. The Secretary of State is the state’s chief election officer. She has broad authority over elections, but does not directly administer them.
In 2018, Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment that gives all voters the right to vote absentee without stating a reason – in other words, all voters in Michigan have the right to vote by mail.
To do so they must first submit an application that includes their signature, and that signature must match the signature on file with their voter registration. Only then will they be issued an absentee ballot, which they must return in an envelope with an additional matching signature.
The applications have been available on the MDOS website for many years, and have been frequently mailed to voters by both political parties, candidate campaigns and numerous non-partisan organizations. Many of those groups mailed the applications in the 2020 election cycle again, as did the Michigan Bureau of Elections at the direction of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. In subsequent lawsuits, multiple judges ruled that this was within the Secretary’s authority.
The Bureau of Elections mailed applications to vote absentee to all Michiganders registered to vote who were not already going to receive one from their county, city or township clerk. Some clerks had already decided to mail applications to their voters, and some voters had already placed themselves on permanent absentee lists, which ensures they are mailed an application ahead of every election. Because many Michiganders had never voted absentee before, the mailing from the state included instructions on how to do so.
The mailing went to both active and inactive registered voters. In accordance with federal law, inactive registered voters include those who have not voted recently, and those who may have moved, but have not been confirmed by their local election clerk as having moved out of their jurisdiction. By mailing the application to inactive voters, the state guaranteed equal access to voters who may have simply chosen not to vote in recent elections. It also advanced the process to clean up the Michigan voter registration list, as many applications were returned undeliverable, providing notice that the voter may have died or moved for local clerks to confirm before cancelling their registrations.
Each week, the Michigan Department of State uses information from the Social Security Death Index to cancel the records of individuals in the Qualified Voter File who have died. County clerks also share death data from county records with local clerks. Additionally, city and township clerks also cancel voter registrations when they independently confirm the death of a voter registered in their jurisdiction, for example through an obituary.
Immediately after taking office, Secretary Benson made Michigan a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a consortium of dozens of states that share voter information to ensure registrations are cancelled when voters relocate within states.
When more people participate in our democracy, it better reflects the will of the people. For decades, Michigan has had one of the best motor-voter systems in the country, resulting in a great voter registration rate among eligible citizens. Voters made the system even stronger when they amended our state constitution in 2018 to require automatic voter registration. Unless they opt out, all eligible citizens are now registered when conducting a driver’s license or state identification transaction with our office. Additionally, residents who are already registered have their registration verified and updated every time they conduct such a transaction with the department.
Applications sent to registered voters who have died do not result in a ballot being sent to the voter, because the dead voter cannot return the application with a signature, let alone one that matches the signature the clerk has on file with their voter registration.
If a living voter casts an absentee ballot prior to Election Day and the clerk learns they have died before Election Day, the deceased voter’s ballot is rejected. This resulted in the rejection of thousands of ballots in Michigan’s August Primary and November General elections.
Following the general election, lists began circulating with thousands of names of people who allegedly had votes cast in their name and were allegedly dead. However, the lists did not contain enough information to accurately compare them to the Michigan’s voter registration list. Further, when the Bureau of Elections has drawn samples of the voters’ names, and reviewed those names against the voter file, they have not encountered cases showing ballots were actually cast on behalf of deceased individuals. Rather, the confusion is often based on people having similar names, being assigned a placeholder birth year in the voter file when the birth date is not known, or a clerical error by the local clerk. A more detailed explanation is available here.
In Michigan, absentee ballots are not counted until a voter has twice provided signatures matching the one on file with their local election clerk – first on their application and then on their absentee ballot envelope. Hundreds of ballots were rejected because they lacked a matching signature. Similarly, upon arriving at a polling place, voters are asked to provide photo ID or sign an affidavit confirming their identity and eligibility to vote.
Voting in another person’s name is illegal – regardless of if it is the other person’s maiden name or the person has died or moved. Charges were brought against people who attempted to apply for the ballot of someone else – and those applications were rejected.
Anyone with evidence of voter fraud should report it to law enforcement in writing so that it can be investigated and referred for prosecution.
Only the Michigan Bureau of Elections and local election clerks can log into, access, edit and modify the state’s Qualified Voter File. Civic organizations, including Rock the Vote, cannot.
The Michigan Department of State (MDOS) worked with the nonpartisan voter education group Rock the Vote to build a secure API – application programming interface – to make it easier for eligible Michigan citizens to register to vote online. The tool, which was announced in June 2020, exists in other states, and which other organizations can use as well, allows organizations to collect voter registration applications electronically and securely submit them to Michigan’s online voter registration system. To do so, the voter must provide all information needed to register to vote online in Michigan. Organizations using the tool do not receive any type of payment from MDOS and they do not have access to voter information that is not already publicly available. A voter’s Social Security number, driver’s license information and other personal information are not publicly available and are not shared by MDOS with those making public records requests or organizations using an API.
When voter registration applications were submitted to the online voter registration tool by a group using the API, that organization’s name is indicated only for record-keeping purposes. This does not mean the group can log into or edit that registration of the Qualified Voter File – they cannot do so.
While many states allowed their clerks days or weeks to prepare absentee ballots prior to Election Day – and Florida gave its clerks a month – the Michigan state Legislature voted to give our clerks just 10 hours to do very limited preparation. Because of this, and the widespread use of absentee ballots, it was announced prior to the general election that complete results would not be available on Election Night. To expedite the process as much as possible, clerks worked around the clock, bolstered by Department of State supports including the recruitment of more than 30,000 election workers and provision of federal funds for automatic envelope openers and more ballot tabulation machines.
Many smaller jurisdictions with fewer voters began reporting all their results first on election night, as they had fewer ballots to count and may have been able to count absentee ballots at their polling places. However, many larger jurisdictions first reported only the results of in-person voting at polling places, as they continued to count absentee ballots at separate locations – absent voter counting boards – specifically for absentee ballots. When they did report their absentee ballot results in large batches (as is always done), some wrongly assumed that they had counted all those ballots in a short amount of time, when in fact they had been counting since Election Day morning.
Further, because President Trump had encouraged his voters to vote in person at polling places, early returns that did not include many absentee ballots showed him in the lead, and that lead diminished and was overcome as absentee ballots, which favored President-elect Biden, were counted and reported.
Michigan law requires ballots be received by local clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day. In the case of absentee ballots, this means that voters had to return their ballot to a clerk’s office or secure ballot drop box by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Any ballot that arrived thereafter, even if postmarked prior to Election Day, was not counted. Thousands of ballots were rejected for late arrival.
All valid absentee ballots that arrived to clerk offices or drop boxes prior to the deadline, and had the voter’s signature on the envelope that matched the signature on file with their registration, were counted. Ballots marked with Sharpies were counted, and Sharpies do not cause any problem for Michigan vote-tabulation machines.
In many larger jurisdictions, absentee ballots that arrived on Election Day were marked as received and put through security checks at clerk offices prior to being brought to absent voter counting boards. If a ballot arrived at a clerk’s office at 8 p.m., it may not move through the process and be sent to the counting board for several hours. This is why, in cities including Detroit, ballots arrived at counting boards several hours after polling places had closed.
Unfortunately, organizations aligned with President Trump did not seem to know that it is standard practice for absentee ballots to arrive at counting boards several hours after polls have closed. They urged supporters to go to Detroit’s counting board to challenge alleged fraud. When hundreds arrived, what had been a calm, bipartisan process before polls closed was transformed into a contentious melee. Many of the newly arrived challengers and observers had not participated in training provided by Detroit officials, and some began issuing challenges not allowed under Michigan election law or instigating conflict with election workers. This resulted in unfortunate interpersonal interactions based on a lack of trust, but did not impact the actual tabulation of votes. In fact, Michigan law requires that challenged ballots are counted as normal, but marked so that they can be retrieved if necessary. Some challengers were eventually escorted out by law enforcement.
Numerous claims of wrongdoing or “irregularities” have been made about Detroit’s election and absentee counting board. However, these have all been answered by election officials, including Chris Thomas, the former Michigan Bureau of Elections director, who oversaw state elections for decades under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, and served as a senior advisor to the Detroit clerk’s office ahead of and during the 2020 general election. Additionally, the claims have been rejected by multiple judges in the state. Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Kenny, originally appointed by Republican Governor John Engler, found many of the claims to be “incorrect and not credible.” More detailed explanations of specific false claims made about election administration in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan are available below.
The bipartisan boards of county canvassers in all of Michigan’s 83 counties, as well as the bipartisan board of state canvassers, certified the results of the general election. Each board is comprised of two Republicans and two Democrats. Michigan law provides the county canvassers 14 days to examine everything that transpired in the elections in jurisdictions in their counties, and then certify the results and election. The state board of canvassers subsequently must vote to certify all the county elections. If canvassers were to encounter any evidence of fraud, they would need to report it to law enforcement. No canvassers reported any fraud or other illegal activity occurred.
The Board of Wayne County Canvassers initially deadlocked 2-2 in its Nov. 17 vote to certify, but later in the same meeting, members voted 4-0 to certify. The initial vote was taken after some canvassers expressed concern about precincts that were out of balance in Detroit. However, out-of-balance precincts are common in Michigan and across the nation. They essentially represent clerical errors where the number of people who were checked into each poll book doesn’t exactly match the number of votes counted or ballots submitted. There are many reasons this can occur: for example, a voter being checked in at the right polling place but the wrong precinct, or a voter checking in but leaving with their ballot if the line was long. In fact, at least 72% of all Detroit precincts were balanced or explained, compared to just 42% in 2016, when both the boards of county and state canvassers certified the election. In 2020 the Wayne County canvassers passed a resolution seeking an election audit. However, the body does not have the authority to order audits, Michigan law does not allow audits prior to certification, and the Michigan Bureau of Elections had already planned and announced numerous post-certification audits. In fact, Secretary Benson would subsequently announce that the Bureau and election clerks would conduct more post-election audits than ever before in state history.
All election materials, including ballots and tallies – which are always on paper in Michigan – and countless other materials, have been preserved to allow subsequent reference and investigation. The Bureau of Elections sent a memo to clerks following certification of the election reminding them, among other things, to delete voter information from e-pollbooks to protect voter privacy, as the e-pollbooks (which are laptop computers) will not be used until a subsequent election and the electronic copy of the information is not needed. This is the same memo that has been sent to clerks for years. Before data is deleted, clerks have already printed a copy from each e-pollbook as a securely stored record.
State and local election officials have conducted dozens of post-election audits of the 2020 general election, all of which have demonstrated the integrity of the election. In all, more than 200 audits will be carried out – more than ever before in state history – to affirm voters’ faith in the election and identify areas for improvement of future election administration. More detailed information about Michigan’s post-election audits is available here.
Following the 2020 general election many false claims were made to reduce public confidence in Michigan’s and the national election. None of the claims were found to have merit, and none of the lawsuits based on the claims, brought before dozens of state and federal judges and justices, were successful. Such false claims dishonor the millions of citizens who cast ballots, damage our democracy, and put lives at risk, as was demonstrated in the deadly attack on the United State Capitol on January 6, 2021.
However, our democracy is strong and resilient. Leaders can work together, across the aisle, to heal the damage that has been done, by unequivocally stating the truth to their colleagues and constituents – that the 2020 election was secure and fair, and the results are an accurate reflection of the will of the voters.