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Michigan clerks: We need more money, guidance to implement early voting

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Michigan elections officials say they need more money and other legal changes to accommodate early voting. (Shutterstock)
  • Some local clerks say they need more funding to staff early voting locations
  • They call for more time to process absentee ballots, updates of voter rolls and clarified election rules
  • Michigan Legislature must amend state law to comply with the new constitutional requirements laid out under Proposal 2

LANSING — State elections clerks say they want more funding, time to process ballots and guidance as they adjust to a new, constitutionally implemented system that requires nine days of early voting.

The comments came during a Tuesday panel discussion in Lansing, as the state Legislature prepares to implement Proposal 2, which voters approved in November.

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The panel was hosted by Promote the Vote, a statewide voting rights advocacy group that championed Proposal 2 last year.

Related:

The initiative also permits private donations for election administration if they are disclosed and requires the state to pay for absentee ballot postage and drop boxes, among other things. The constitutional amendment also ensures registered voters can continue to vote without an ID if they sign an affidavit attesting to their identity.

House Elections Chair Penelope Tsernoglou, D-East Lansing, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday she hopes to implement all changes panelists proposed Tuesday, and “do it in a way best for both the clerks and all of the voters.”

Over the past years, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blocked a series of Republican-led election law changes, including voter ID requirements, greater access for poll watchers at polling stations and removal of certain voters from voter rolls. Some of them had bipartisan support. 

Here are four things voting rights advocates and elections clerks want from the state Legislature:

Money

Accommodating the new constitutional requirements could cost the state $2.1 million for drop boxes to collect absentee ballots and $4.8 million on postage costs for 6 million absentee ballots, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency

The state is flush with cash, with $9.2 billion in surplus. Michigan also has $16 million in federal election funding, which could help offset the cost, the analysis contends.

But changes could also generate more costs to municipal clerks, who now must staff early voting locations. Some have expressed concerns they may not afford to do that.

“It’s going to take money that a lot of communities don’t have,” Adam Wit, Harrison Township clerk and president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said during the Tuesday discussion.

“They don’t have a city hall that’s theirs. They rent the space from somebody else for their board meetings once a month,” he said. “What are they going to do?”

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said money is a top concern.

“Election administration was deemed a critical infrastructure many years ago,” she said Tuesday. “You would not know that based on the funding that we have not received and the respect that election administrators have not received.”

Former House Elections Committee Chair Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, now serves as the minority vice chair of the general government subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. 

Bollin told Bridge Michigan she has supported more funding for local clerks and expects the Legislature to prioritize it as the budget cycle begins.

“The conversation should be starting now,” she said.

More time to canvass, pre-process

Aside from funding, clerks would benefit from more time to conduct recounts and audits and to pre-process absentee ballots, panelists said. 

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope advocated for moving the primary date from August to May, which he said would allow the clerks more time to canvass the primary results and test the election machines ahead of the general election.

Last year, the Republican-led Legislature allowed for two days of pre-processing absentee ballots ahead of the November election, which allowed local clerks to take the ballots out of the envelope in advance. They were still not allowed to feed the ballots through the tabulator until Election Day.

Updates to electronic pollbook

Under a Republican-backed law passed last year, local clerks are required to update the Qualified Voter File — the official list of registered voters — at least monthly to eliminate dead voters. 

The night before each election, local clerks download a copy of the Qualified Voter File to a laptop not connected to the Internet for reference at the polling location the next day. That data is “static,” Swope said.

But if voters are allowed to cast their ballots at any of the early voting locations — a practice currently in place for early voting in Illinois — the static data could create a loophole for voters who can cast their ballots multiple times at different locations, Swope said.

“If I have three sites just for City of Lansing folks, if it’s static data at the beginning of the day, what’s to stop somebody from going to all three sites that day?” he said.

But on the other hand, connecting the electronic pollbook to the Internet for live updates would be challenging for rural communities that lack broadband access, he said. Additionally, connecting the voter roll to the Internet could increase the risk of hacking, Byrum told Bridge Michigan.

Bollin, the state representative, said voters should only be allowed to vote at an early voting location within their precinct, and the system in place already prevents duplicated votes by allowing local clerks to communicate with each other and identify voters who are voting outside their precinct. 

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Byrum called the solution “short-sighted.”

“That will slow down the process, create additional confusion and put a lot more work on the locals who are already trying to conduct an election,” she said.

Guidance on early voting rules

The passage of Proposal 2 also created uncertainty for local clerks as the state figures out what laws to change to comply with the new Constitution. 

“There is a lot of clarity that is lacking right now,” said Swope, the Lansing clerk.

The state must clarify things such as how local clerks deal with ballots that are cast early, or whether voters who cast their ballots in person early but die before Election Day, Swope said.

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