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Opinion | How Michigan can tackle influx in absentee ballots

This year’s election is shaping up to be the largest in Michigan to date, with significant increases expected in the amount of absentee ballots issued and returned to local clerks. While this sudden influx represents an exciting growth in the number of people exercising their Constitutional right to make their voices heard, it comes with its own set of challenges that local clerks will have to face and adapt to.  But with every challenge comes an opportunity and Michigan has the chance now to modernize our election law in an era of unprecedented engagement. We cannot take this chance lightly. 

There has been no shortage of ideas on how to tackle this increase, from further consolidating precincts or spending millions for new equipment and more staff. But both options have serious drawbacks. Precinct consolidation has caused long lines and voter confusion when previously enacted in Michigan and in other states, and without new revenue every dollar directed to elections must come out of another area of the budget. While some additional money should certainly be prioritized for election security and modernization, the full amount necessary to account for our changing electoral landscape and increasing participation is unrealistic to attain without new revenue.

However, there is a simpler solution to the pressures facing our clerks: Allow clerks to count absentee ballots earlier, without tabulating the results. To give this option to our counties, I have introduced House Bill 5435 to allow municipalities, at their own discretion, to count absentee ballots early up to 7 days before Election Day. Current Michigan law restricts clerks from beginning to count ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day. For larger municipalities, this is done by an Absent Voter Counting Board. Unfortunately, many don’t have the resources to dedicate workers and machines solely to absentee ballots. For those cities and townships, this means that poll workers feed ballots into the tabulator during downtime at the polling locations and often are forced to wait until after the polls close to even begin counting AV ballots. This task is made more difficult for those municipalities who have few, and in some cases zero, high-speed mechanical tabulators. 

My legislation would allow AVCBs to convene before Election Day and begin preparing and running absentee ballots through the high-speed tabulators while being expressly forbidden from having results displayed. Not only would this help out large municipalities, it would allow smaller areas to use the same staff and machines that they need on Election Day and more efficiently use their resources when conducting the election. As the number of Michigan voters who choose to vote absentee rises, clerks should be given more time to count absentee ballots. 

Counting absentee ballots prior to Election Day is not new, this procedure is already done successfully in 28 other states, with 16 allowing the counting and tabulating of the actual ballots prior to Election Day. By implementing this change, municipalities can save money by training fewer workers, requiring fewer voting machines overall, and have the option to use their resources as efficiently as possible.  With time restraints and the lack of consistent resources across the state, there is a real concern that Michiganders may not know the results of the election until long after the rest of the country has been decided. This simply is not an option in a year where Michigan is guaranteed to play such a pivotal role in the national conversation. My legislation will help ensure voters have their ballots counted and results reported to them alongside every other American citizen on a day so central to our democracy, and so critical in the shaping of our future.

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