After months of calls for changes by city and township clerks, Michigan election officials will likely be allowed to begin preparing absentee ballots to be counted the day before Election Day this fall.
Legislation to allow the change passed the state House 94-11 with bipartisan support Thursday afternoon. The bill must be returned to the state Senate for formal approval before it can be sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
While many Democrats and elections officials argue the bill doesn’t go far enough, the change is expected to help ease the crush of absentee ballots expected in the November general election and speed up reporting of results. Absentee ballots take more time to count than those cast in person. It is supported by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office and the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.
- How to vote early in the November election in Michigan
- Voting activists get twin victories in Michigan with transport, ballot cases
- Michigan Senate votes to let clerks open absentee ballot envelopes day early
A record-breaking number of people — 1.6 million, compared with 1.27 million in the 2016 general election — voted absentee in the August primary, and Benson expects two to three times as many will do so this fall.
Already, 2.39 million people have requested absentee ballots for the November general election. That, too, breaks a record of the 2 million requested in August.
Senate Bill 757, sponsored by former GOP Secretary of State and current Sen. Ruth Johnson would:
- Require clerks to notify voters if their absentee ballot is rejected because their signature didn’t match or they forgot to include a signature. Those signatures are on the outside of the envelope and don't require unpackaging, allowing clerks to notify voters as ballots are received.
- Allow municipalities of at least 25,000 to begin pre-processing absentee ballots from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. the day before the November election. Pre-processing can include removing absentee ballots from their exterior mailing envelope. The ballots aren’t allowed to be removed from the interior envelope, the secrecy sleeve.
- Require that election inspectors from each major political party be present at the processing location.
- Allow absentee counting boards — election officials who count absentee ballots — to work in shifts, such as allowing new counters to start work later in the day on Election Day.
- Add new security requirements for ballot drop boxes installed after Oct. 1, including requiring video monitoring of drop boxes.
- Move up the deadline for when voters can “spoil” an absentee ballot (cancel their old one and ask to cast a new one) from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. on the day before the election.
- Require the Secretary of State’s office to report data on absentee voting to the Legislature by March next year.
The legislation also requires communities to notify the Secretary of State’s office if they’re planning to take advantage of the extra processing time 20 days before the election, Wednesday, Oct. 14.
This summer, Benson warned that it could take up to two days for final election results to become available in the August primary due to the number of absentee ballots. Most counties had reported results by the next morning, but some counties weren’t finalized until late into the day. She said the same issue may occur in November without an update to election law.
Johnson called her bill a "commonsense measure" that "can help reduce mistakes caused by election officials working long hours" in a statement praising its passage on Thursday.
While many election officials and Democrats say the bill that passed the House Thursday will help clerks deal with the influx of absentee ballots this fall, they have also criticized the short time frame allowed for pre-processing and the limitation to only the November election.
Other bills that would have provided longer timeframes for pre-processing ballots were not advanced in the Legislature. Many other states allow early pre-processing of mail-in ballots days or even weeks ahead of the election.
Jake Rollow, spokesperson for Benson, told reporters on Tuesday that seven days is the “best practice” for allowing pre-processing of ballots and argued that the bill doesn’t allow enough steps in preparing ballots for tabulation.
“The more you can allow clerks to do, the more they can get done, and the quicker we can get results after Election Day,” Rollow said. “There’s this excessive caution that seems unnecessary to me.”
Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, and Rep. Tim Sneller, D-Burton, offered amendments that would allow pre-processing on Saturday and Sunday in addition to Monday and which would eliminate the 25,000-person floor for municipalities to participate in the bill. Both failed.
“Only 72 communities would actually be able to benefit from this bill,” Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw, told the chamber as she offered her “qualified support” for the legislation.
“Smaller communities struggle because they don’t have as many financial resources to buy the high-speed tabulators” that larger cities can afford, she said. She also argued that the video-monitoring requirement for drop boxes represents an unfunded mandate.
Spokespeople for Whitmer and Benson did not immediately return requests for comment on the legislation, but Benson has called the bill a “step in the right direction.”
Some Republicans initially opposed the legislation put forward by their GOP peer, raising concerns that it could invite fraud. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey reportedly met with clerks and determined it would help provide needed relief.