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Michigan Republicans Split Over Mail-In Voting Amid State's Primary

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Michigan's primary is tomorrow. The state has many potentially competitive races. A record number of voters is expected to vote by mail, but there's a divide among Republicans about the practice. Some are taking President Trump's line that it could lead to fraud, while others say Republicans need to embrace it. From East Lansing, Mich., WKAR's Abigail Censky reports.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Several months ago, President Trump singled out Michigan for sending absentee ballot applications to registered voters, falsely claiming it was illegal. Echoing him, the state's Republicans argue that efforts to expand mail-in voting will increase the chance of fraud. State Sen. Ruth Johnson is a former Michigan secretary of state.

RUTH JOHNSON: We've opened up our system to stripping out the integrity. It doesn't help one side or the other. It helps fraud.

CENSKY: But talk like that troubles plenty of other Republicans, especially those who are knee-deep in the nuts and bolts of how Michigan's elections work.

TINA BARTON: I will respectfully disagree that I think that there are large amounts of fraud. I have been an election official for 15 years, and I have only had to file two police reports.

CENSKY: Tina Barton is a local clerk in Rochester Hills, Mich. She serves on the election security commission. Her office is nonpartisan, but personally, she's a conservative Republican. Barton emphasizes the importance of security procedures like signature checks to ensure absentee ballots are secure. She says Johnson has a right to raise concerns about ballot applications being sent to people who have moved or are deceased. And she has worries about the state's new online voter registration system. But Barton says claims about widespread fraud are unfounded.

BARTON: The issues that actually exist that aren't attention-grabbers and that people maybe aren't going to care about until the day after the election when they had to wait in a really long line or they think that we didn't do our job by assigning enough workers - and so that's the kind of stuff that really should be talked about.

CENSKY: Election experts have long attested that absentee voting fraud is essentially statistically insignificant. Just two years ago, Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment to make it easier to vote by mail. And recent polls show it's highly popular. The growing partisan debate also concerns Republican campaign operatives. John Sellek has served as a senior adviser to many statewide campaigns. He says Republican candidates can't afford to ignore voting by mail.

JOHN SELLEK: The rules are the same, but the motivations, the actions of voters have changed. They're going to vote primarily by mail. And any campaign, Republican or Democrat, that doesn't recognize that and adjust all their resources and to adjust their entire voter turnout operation to that system is going to lose.

CENSKY: In fact, a number of Republican congressional campaigns are encouraging voters to vote absentee. Sellek says there are lots of real issues about expanding vote by mail, such as how to make sure ballots are filled out correctly, that the votes are counted quickly and whether clerks can handle the volume of mail. But, he says, that's not the debate we're having.

SELLEK: The bottom line is the trust that Americans have in the various institutions of government. Right now, we're going through a period where there isn't a whole lot of trust in a whole lot of institutions in American government. And that basic one that we've got to be able to hold on to is the integrity of the vote.

CENSKY: For many voters, the biggest concern is not about fraud. It's about if their absentee ballot will be delivered on time.

For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky in Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.