Clerks warned over ballot application

By David Eggert

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) - The Michigan elections bureau has issued a warning about problems with a new Democratic Party program that lets voters apply online for absentee ballots, saying clerks are getting applications for voters who live outside the jurisdiction and signatures that do not match voter records.

The late Monday alert to local election administrators statewide, obtained by The Associated Press, also cites concerns about duplicate applications and applications without signatures.

"These issues raise concerns with the program's accuracy and reliability and place unsuspecting voters in jeopardy of being disenfranchised," according to the memo that describes the program as "unapproved" and asks clerks to quickly report problems to the state.

The elections bureau is housed within Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson's department, which confirmed to the AP that the alert had been sent.

"Please know that the program was implemented without prior notice to the Bureau of Elections (BOE) and has not been subjected to review and testing by technical experts within BOE," the bureau wrote to clerks. "BOE is currently gathering information about this program, but several potential problems have already been identified."

State Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson defended the program Tuesday, saying it is working "extremely well, as it did in our rigorous testing over months." The party will improve the program and address any problems, he said.

"We will be contacting the state shortly to address any outstanding concerns with our digital AV ballot application program," Johnson said in a statement.

The project could help in its effort to boost turnout in November among Democrats - especially younger voters, women and African-Americans - who vote in presidential elections but not off-year races.

The party announced in July that Detroit would become Michigan's first municipality to allow voters to submit an absentee ballot application online. Lansing, Flint and Ann Arbor were expected to participate in time for the August primary or the Nov. 4 general election.

Last week, the state party, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Democratic Secretary of State candidate Godfrey Dillard announced the program's expansion statewide.

Election officials must verify an absentee voter applicant's signature with their signature on file. The party's technology is limited to touch-screen phones and tablets to start but may be expanded to desktop computers later once e-signature technology improves. Residents can visit http://www.MIAbsentee.com and fill out an application, which is transmitted electronically to the clerk's office via fax.

The requests traditionally have been accepted by mail, fax or in person. When Democrats first launched the tool earlier this summer, a secretary of state spokeswoman said the department would not comment until it had a chance to determine whether it was legal.

The memo sent Monday says the program announced last week appears to have "notable differences" from the Detroit pilot, though the differences are not outlined. The bureau urges clerks to contact voters with deficiencies in their application and arrange to obtain a new one.

It also asks them to forward applications for voters who do not live in the jurisdiction to the proper jurisdiction. If the proper jurisdiction cannot be established, the clerks should forward applications to the state elections bureau.

The memo also says clerks might be getting applications by email from multiple websites. Lon Johnson, however, said the program includes safeguards, saying it effectively only lets voters submit applications by fax to clerks in the jurisdiction where they reside. Voters receive an email with a copy of their completed application, he said.

Voters casting an absentee ballot in Michigan must be 60 or older, be out of town when the polls are open or meet other criteria. Roughly 27 percent of the votes cast in 2012 were absentee ballots, up from about 16 percent a decade earlier.

Ruth Johnson, who is running for re-election in November, said the Democrats' website has "critical flaws" and encouraged voters to visit http://www.michigan.gov/sos to "securely" obtain an absentee ballot application that can be mailed or taken to a local clerk.

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Online:

Absentee ballot application on state website: http://1.usa.gov/1lR9FXM.

www.MIAbsentee.com.

Published: Thu, Sep 11, 2014