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How to vote early in the November election in Michigan

masks at the polls

The Nov. 3 general election is six weeks away, and Michiganders can start casting ballots as early as Thursday, when local clerks begin sending out absentee ballots to all voters who have already requested them. 

Nearly a third of Michigan’s registered voters, 2.39 million, have requested an absentee ballot for the fall, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office said Tuesday. That tops the previous record of mail-in ballots requested — about 2 million ballots in the August primary election — and has grown by about 100,000 in the last week alone. 

Nearly 1.6 million people voted absentee in the August primary, which itself smashed the previous record of absentee votes set in the 2016 general election. Benson has said she expects two to three times as many people to do so this fall. 

That’s in part due to the expansion of voting rights put in place by a 2018 constitutional amendment that gave all Michiganders the right to vote by mail. The other part, of course, is ongoing public concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. 

People who choose to vote absentee have options: casting a ballot by mail, by putting it in a ballot drop box, or by heading into the clerk’s office to vote absentee in-person. 

Voting in person on Election Day is still an option for any eligible voter, and polling places will be asked to take extra safety precautions to help people maintain distance and keep high-touch surfaces clean. But if you’d like to vote absentee this year, here’s how to do it. 

Step 1: Check your voter registration. 

Make sure you’re registered to vote by entering your voter information here. All Michigan residents over the age of 18, who are U.S. citizens, who aren’t currently serving a sentence in jail or prison, and who will have lived in the state for at least 30 days by Election Day are eligible to vote. If you have a misdemeanor or felony conviction and have finished your sentence or are being held in jail awaiting trial, you are still eligible to vote. 

If you’re not registered, register to vote online through Oct. 19 using your current Michigan driver’s license or state ID card. 

Or go into your clerk’s office and register to vote any time through Election Day. Bring an official document that proves where you live, such as a: 

  • Driver’s license or state ID
  • Current utility bill
  • Bank statement
  • Paycheck
  • Government document, including a government check

Then there are two absentee voting options: voting by mail or voting absentee in person.

To vote absentee in person, check the hours your local clerk’s office is open and go in. You can apply for an absentee ballot, fill it out and submit it all in one visit until 4 p.m. on Nov. 2. 

If you’re registering for the first time, you can register and cast an in-person absentee ballot on Election Day, Nov. 3

To vote by mail, carry on with the steps below. 

Step 2: Apply for an absentee ballot. 

Apply online for an absentee ballot to be sent to you in the mail any time before 5 p.m. Oct. 30. You can also download an application, fill it out and return it to your clerk by email, mail, fax or in person.  

However, “it’s not advisable to wait that long” due to potential mail delays, said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. 

She recommends voters who are requesting a ballot be sent to them in the mail do it before Oct. 12. After that, go into your clerk and get a ballot in person just to be certain there will be time to fill it out and return it.

It is illegal to apply for an absentee ballot in someone else’s name, so make sure you’re representing only yourself. 

Step 3: Choose your candidates. 

You don’t have to wait until you get your ballot to begin learning about who is running. See a full list of candidates by entering your voter information here

Once you receive your absentee ballot, read the instructions and fill it out as soon as you’re certain of who you’d like to elect. 

Fill in the circle next to your preferred candidate’s name completely. If you made a mistake, don’t put an “X” over it — it doesn’t cancel out your mistake. If you accidentally choose the wrong candidate, the only option is to “spoil” your ballot and get a new one. If that happens to you, skip to Step 7.

In this election, you can split your ticket by voting for candidates from both political parties for different offices, or you can choose to vote “straight ticket,” which would select all partisan candidates from one political party. If you choose to vote straight ticket, don’t miss the nonpartisan candidates and local ballot questions that don’t fall under one political party. 

Step 4: Sign your ballot envelope. 

When you received your ballot, you should have gotten instructions, a secrecy sleeve and a second, larger envelope. 

Put your ballot inside the secrecy sleeve. Then put that inside the larger envelope. If you forget to include the secrecy sleeve, it’s OK. Election officials will put it in a secrecy sleeve when they take it out to begin processing ballots. 

Be sure to sign the outside of the envelope in the big box indicated for signatures. 

“That is imperative,” Byrum said. If you forget to sign the envelope or your signature is dramatically different than the one on file with the Secretary of State’s office, your ballot will be rejected. 

Once your ballot reaches the clerk’s office, you can check whether your signature was accepted by entering your voter information here

Step 5: Return your ballot to your clerk. 

There are three options for getting your ballot back to your clerk: 

  • Drop it in a ballot drop box
  • Mail it back
  • Take it to your clerk’s office

To drop your ballot in a drop box, first check to see whether your city has them. Visit this website, choose “who is my clerk?” and enter your address under “search for your city/township clerk.” Only drop your ballot in drop boxes belonging to the city you received a ballot from. For example, if you’re voting in Ann Arbor, don’t drop your ballot in a Detroit drop box. 

To mail back your ballot, affix the necessary amount of postage to the outside envelope. Because ballots vary in length, ballots from different cities may need different amounts of postage. Using two stamps will usually be plenty, but call your clerk to be certain. 

Election officials recommend you mail your ballot by Oct. 19, two weeks before the election, to account for any potential postal delays. Ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day. 

If it’s getting close to Election Day and you want to be certain your ballot makes it in time, return your ballot by hand to your clerk’s office or one of its satellite offices (Detroit, for example, will have close to 20). You can do this any time before 8 p.m. on Election Day, and clerks are required to be open for at least eight hours the weekend before the election. 

Step 6: Make sure your clerk received your ballot. 

You can check whether your clerk received your voter application, whether they sent it, and whether they received it online here

If you sent your ballot back to your clerk more than a week ago and the clerk still hasn’t indicated they’ve received it, you may need to spoil your ballot and cast a new one (more on that below). Same goes for if you dropped your ballot in a drop box and it’s not updated within a day. 

If it gets close to the election and that’s the case, call your clerk to double check. If they didn’t receive it, ask them how you can spoil your ballot. 

Step 7: If you change your mind or made a mistake, spoil and recast your ballot. 

If you made a mistake, changed your mind, or your ballot looks like it won’t reach your clerk in time, you may want to “spoil” your ballot and cast a new one. Spoiling a ballot is the same as canceling the old one. 

Typically, Byrum said, you’ll need to write to your clerk asking them to spoil the ballot, sign it and date it. You can often write a note, take a picture of it, and email it to your clerk instead. To be sure, call your clerk and ask what you need to do.

The clerk will then cancel your old ballot and send you a new one. If it’s close to Election Day, they may advise you to come in and vote in person. 

If the canceled ballot reaches you or the clerk after you’ve spoiled it, it won’t count. Make sure you vote on the new ballot issued to you. 

The latest you can spoil a ballot is 4 p.m. on Nov. 2, the day before the election. If you spoil your ballot at the last minute, ask your clerk what your options are to cast your vote. 

Step 8: Celebrate 

If you’ve made it through all of the above steps, it’s time to celebrate — you’ve voted in the 2020 general election. 

Editor's note: This post was updated on Oct. 19, 2020, after an appeals court ruled that ballots cannot be counted unless they reach clerks by Election Day.

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