By Michael Martina and John Whitesides
DETROIT, Aug 4 (Reuters) - Michele Small, a retired Detroit school teacher recovering from a stroke, had planned to vote by mail for the first time to protect herself from the coronavirus. But the absentee ballot she requested weeks ago never arrived.
Neither did the ballots requested by many of her neighbors, she said, as she voted in person in Michigan's primary election on Tuesday.
"I'm angry. I'm disappointed," said Small, 63, who is Black. "But I still had to come out and vote."
Problems with getting absentee mail ballots in Michigan, a vital presidential battleground and one of five states holding party primaries on Tuesday, raised fresh questions about how prepared the country will be to handle an expected flood of mail-in absentee ballot requests for November's presidential, congressional and state general elections.
Most states have moved to expand access to mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic to avoid spreading infection with in-person voting. But they face myriad budget and logistical issues, as well as attacks from President Donald Trump who claims, without evidence, that absentee voting is prone to fraud.
Trump also questioned on Monday whether the Postal Service can handle the increased volume, and Democrats and voting rights groups have warned recent cuts in Postal Service overtime may further exacerbate delays in service.
The concerns raised about voting in Michigan on Tuesday echoed similar issues faced in earlier primaries in battleground states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Michigan experienced a record of more than 2 million requests for absentee ballots, and had about 1.5 million returned by Tuesday afternoon, the Secretary of State's office said. About 1.27 million absentee ballots were returned in the state for the 2016 November presidential election, which typically have higher turnout than primary contests.
Melanie McElroy, election protection manager for Michigan Voice, a non-partisan voting rights and social advocacy group, said "a lot of people" in Detroit never received their requested absentee ballots.
McElroy said it was unclear whether the problem with delayed absentee ballots was with the Postal Service or from overwhelmed local election officials, but she added it was frustrating for voters.
Jake Rollow, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's office, said it had heard reports of people not receiving their absentee ballots in the mail "but by no means an overwhelming number." Those who did not get their ballot could cast a vote in person, he said.
The Postal Service did not respond to a request for comment.
DEMANDS FOR FUNDING
Dom Holmes, 30, a Navy veteran from Detroit, said neither he nor his father received the mail-in ballots they had requested.
"I genuinely don't know why I didn't get my ballot. This is the problem with our country right now: We don't know what's true. We have to work so hard for the truth that people just turn off," said Holmes, who is Black and served five overseas deployments as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.
The widespread use of mail ballots, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, also will likely cause significant delays in tallying results in many states as the votes are received and sometimes counted by hand.
Elections experts are warning the results of the Nov. 3 White House race between Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are unlikely to be known that day.
Already this year, some primary elections held mostly by mail have remained unsettled long after their scheduled votes. Trump on Monday suggested a congressional race in New York should be re-run because it remains undecided weeks after the June 23 primary.
National voting rights advocates said Trump's attacks on mail-in voting appeared to be a deliberate strategy to undermine confidence in elections, and they called on him to instead properly fund the Postal Service to deal with pandemic delays.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives in May proposed $3.6 billion in new election funding for state and local governments; Republicans have said they were open to considering more election funding but opposed to expanding mail-in voting.
Small said she wasn't worried about fraud from mail-in ballots, but she did have concerns it could complicate the November election and create problems for the senior citizens who live near her.
"A lot of these people want to vote but might not be able to," Small said.
(Reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Aurora Ellis)
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