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Michigan election law: Everyone wants change, common ground is the hard part

 Jocelyn Benson at press conference
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters in Detroit this week that the Legislature should change laws to make voting and processing ballots easier. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)

Since the 2020 election, local and state officials have put forth a slew of proposals for overhauling how Michigan’s votes are processed, tallied and kept secure.

But with another statewide election this fall, little has changed as deep ideological differences make even widely bipartisan proposals a tough sell in Michigan’s divided government.

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This week, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called on lawmakers for more resources for local election workers, urging legislators to abandon proposals “in search of non-existent problems” in favor of nonpartisan election policies. 

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Benson largely pushed recommendations that dovetail with recent requests from local clerks — particularly allowing pre-processing of ballots, which she said would help election workers get unofficial results out the night of and avoid proliferation of conspiracy theories. 

“We need to take action rather than continuing to spread misinformation,” she told reporters during a media event in Detroit, referring to claims of election fraud in the 2020 election that have persisted among supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Legislative Republicans, meanwhile, have passed several bills to change election law this year, but most have been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Some of those ideas, including requiring voter ID at the polls, are now part of a separate petition drive backed by the Michigan GOP.

Other changes that were vetoed by the governor had at least some bipartisan support, including bills to provide more training to poll challengers, expand polling place locations and require voters to attest they understand it’s illegal to vote more than once in an election.

Whitmer claimed such bills would have a chilling effect on voter turnout and perpetuate a false narrative about widespread cheating.

Here’s a look at some of the ways officials have proposed changing Michigan’s elections process.

Pre-process ballots

Absentee voting has exploded in popularity in recent years, largely due to a 2018 constitutional amendment that no-reason absentee voting and the global pandemic. In 2020, 57 percent of total votes cast were absentee — about 3.2 million of the state’s 5,568,097 ballots.

That inadvertently created a big headache for local election officials, as preparing the absentee ballots for tabulation takes a long time and the process can’t begin until Election Day. 

After the 2020 election, some Republicans acknowledged allowing more pre-processing of ballots could help clerks deliver unofficial results faster. But changes to existing law have stalled, prompting clerks to call on lawmakers to approve changes and other practical reforms. 

"There is no doubt that Americans are divided over the past election; but improvements that lead to better run elections have the power to lessen the tensions of mistrust and unite us in a common goal of accessible and secure elections," the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks and the Michigan Association of County Clerks wrote in a joint letter to lawmakers. 

Benson reiterated her support for additional pre-Election Day processing time Tuesday, telling reporters she’s hopeful the advocacy of clerks who experienced the influx of absentee ballots firsthand in 2020 can move the needle.

“We have seen exactly why we need additional hours prior to Election Day,” Benson said. 

Stricter voter ID policies

Republicans have supported measures aimed at tightening state voter identification laws and putting additional requirements on absentee ballot applicants. 

Bills that cleared the Legislature — and were vetoed by Whitmer — would eliminate an affidavit option for in-person voters who forget or lack identification to sign a statement of identity under penalty of perjury when casting their ballot. 

Absentee ballot applicants would also either have to present their ID in person or mail their driver license, state identification card or a portion of their Social Security number to their local clerk.

Anyone voting in-person or absentee without ID would cast a “provisional ballot” that would not be counted on Election Day, but still could be counted in the final tally if they returned to their clerk’s office with ID within six days.

In a veto letter to lawmakers, Whitmer said a change isn’t necessary to Michigan’s voter ID law, which allows in-person voters who forget or do not have ID to vote after submitting an affidavit under penalty of perjury, punishable by up to five years in prison. 

A Bridge Michigan analysis found that voting without ID is also incredibly rare: Only 11,417 out of 5,579,317 voters used the affidavit option to cast a ballot without ID in 2020, about 0.2 percent.

Republicans are circulating a petition with language nearly identical to the legislation that would allow the GOP-led Legislature to circumvent the governor and change voting laws without her because of a unique provision in the Michigan Constitution.

Polls show strong support in Michigan for voter ID, and 36 states have some form of the requirement.
Supporters such as Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, who led an exhaustive inquiry that concluded there was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election, has told Bridge that mandatory ID is a “very simple thing” to help increase confidence.

Banning unsolicited absentee applications

Ahead of the 2020 election, Benson’s office spent $4.5 million to send out unsolicited absentee ballot applications to all 7.7 million registered voters in Michigan, citing the pandemic.

The move was controversial — Republicans argued it introduced potential fraud into the system because some applications were sent to addresses where the registered voter no longer lived. Michigan courts ultimately determined Benson had the authority to mail the applications, and supporters say the move likely contributed to record turnout in the presidential election. 

The legislative Republican election plan would prohibit state or local election officials from mailing unsolicited applications to voters who had not requested one first.

But it could be a moot point in 2022, as Benson said Tuesday there are no plans to mail applications this year.

More money for local clerks

Benson’s big financial ask of the Legislature was to direct $100 million in state funding annually to local election officials for election administration and security measures.

Benson said she envisions the money being used for upgrading election machines, providing training for election workers, poll challengers and others involved in the process or increasing security at polling places.  

House Elections Committee Chair Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, told The Detroit News she’d “really like to know what the justification is for this $100 million,” noting the state has held elections since 2020 without too much hassle. 

Stiffer penalties for harassing election workers

Benson said the Legislature should consider creating harsher punishments for people who threaten or harass election workers, including those who share their personal information online in a tactic known as “doxxing.” 

Several Michigan clerks have spoken out about an uptick in personal threats, and the trend has borne out across the country — a 2021 Brennan Center for Justice survey found 1 in 3 election officials in the United States feel unsafe on the job.

The increase in aggressive behavior toward election officials and volunteers has many leaving their positions, Benson said, because they’re “unwilling to take further abuse for simply doing their jobs.” 

Benson said her department is asking lawmakers to recognize attacks on election officials as a felony, both on the job and at home. 

More training and transparency 

Lawmakers and local government officials alike have highlighted the need for additional training for those involved in the election process, including poll challengers. 

Clerks have also argued giving them more tools and time to do their work would increase transparency and give citizens a better view of the process. 

They want to moving primaries from August to June to allow more time for auditing and certification of results, requiring post-election audits to be made public, letting clerks remove dead voters or voters who have moved out of state from the qualified voter file and offering a “functional structure” for early voting.

Electronic voting for military

Proposals to allow members of the military serving overseas to vote electronically remain a priority for many elected officials. 

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Benson said Tuesday that mail delays caused nearly 25 percent of military ballots to be returned too late to be counted in the 2020 election cycle. 

“More than 1,600 members of our Armed Services were disenfranchised by our antiquated laws,” she said. “This has to change.”

Bills that would make the change remain pending in the Michigan Legislature. Similar measures saw bipartisan support last session, but ultimately didn’t make it to the governor’s desk due to disagreements over whether a military member’s spouse should be eligible for electronic voting as well.

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