Michigan GOP relaxes ballot drop box reform. Critics say plan is still unfair
LANSING — Michigan Senate Republicans on Wednesday relaxed a proposal to bar voters from using absentee ballot drop boxes on Election Day, but faced continued criticism because the revised plan would still lock the boxes three hours before polls close.
Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, defended his legislation as an attempt to speed results reporting and ease a “substantial burden” on election clerks by ensuring they aren’t scrambling to collect ballots from drop boxes after voting ends at 8 p.m. on Election Day.
But local clerks across the state, who have urged the Republican-led Legislature to allow for early tabulation of absentee ballots to speed reporting, contend the proposal could confuse voters and deny them a convenient way to return ballots.
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McBroom acknowledged those concerns as he unveiled a substitute bill that would require clerks to lock the drop boxes at 5 p.m. on Election Day, as opposed to 5 p.m. on the day before an election, as initially proposed.
Closing drop boxes “at some point before 8 o’clock would allow clerks to start collecting those ballots and start processing them earlier, so they're not out in the dark, they're not out after hours, working all night to process thousands and thousands of ballots,” he said.
The legislative tweak did little to curb criticism, however. Groups including the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, the Michigan Association of County Clerks and the ACLU of Michigan each spoke out against the measure despite McBroom's revision.
"The 5 p.m. deadline will burden voters and clerks by creating widespread confusion, eliminating a convenient, secure access point when it's most needed and urgent in those final three hours of Election Day," said Merissa Kovach of the ACLU of Michigan.
While collecting ballots from drop boxes when polls close may take time, "our concern is that for voters, this could be the difference between being able to vote or not vote," Kovach told legislators, who did not vote on the measure Wednesday.
Senate Republicans are proposing several absentee ballot drop box reforms as part of a larger 39-bill package that would tighten voting rules in what they call an attempt to prevent election fraud, which experts say is extremely rare despite false claims by former President Donald Trump.
Among other things, the Senate GOP plan would require local clerks to monitor all drop boxes with high-definition video cameras, ensure proper lighting, plaster them with warnings against voter fraud and follow rigorous new reporting requirements to document ballot collection.
Senate Elections Committee Chair Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, said the security proposals are based on bipartisan recommendations from a work group assembled by the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Fraud may be rare, but it happens and should be safeguarded against, Johnson said.
“The majority of the people in this state don’t believe that we have integrity in our elections,” said Johnson, who was Michigan’s chief elections administrator from 2011 through 2018 when she served as Secretary of State.
It’s not immediately clear what data Johnson used to make that assertion.
A statewide poll in February for The Detroit News found 23 percent of Michigan voters did not believe President Joe Biden legitimately won last year's election, and another 9 percent said they were not sure.
Self-identified “Trump Republicans” were much more likely to believe the former president’s claim the election was rigged to favor Biden, who won Michigan by 154,188 votes in an election Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has called “secure and successful.”
As Bridge Michigan reported Monday, clerks around the state rushed to install drop boxes in their jurisdictions last year in the first presidential election since voters approved an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing the right to vote by absentee ballot without excuse.
Combined, Michigan clerks offered voters more than 1,100 drop boxes, many of them installed for the first time.
Election drop boxes in Michigan
There were over 1,100 drop boxes used during the 2020 general election, and they were utilized in communities across the state.
Source: Michigan Secretary of State
The boxes proved popular with voters amid an explosion of absentee ballot voting during the coronavirus pandemic and fears over U.S. Postal Service delays.
There is no evidence the drop boxes proposed any major security risks, said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a nonprofit group that has worked to end gerrymandering in the state.
The legislation would make it "more expensive and burdensome for local governments to offer their voters secure drop boxes,” she said.
Republican activists, however, urged the Legislature to eliminate absentee ballot drop boxes altogether, arguing they pose more security risks than voting by mail.
"It's a matter of complexity for what is frankly a relatively minor convenience," said Adam de Angeli of the Rescue Michigan Coalition, a conservative group considering a petition drive to change voting laws.
Local election officials do not oppose security requirements for absentee ballot drop boxes, but they need money to buy equipment that would be required, said Delta Township Clerk Mary Clark, a Democrat and vice president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.
Delta Township paid about $3,000 to install a new drop box and video surveillance system last year, Clark told legislators. Rural jurisdictions, in particular, may not be able to afford the equipment and fear they “are being in some way punished for being small,” she added.
Local election officials oppose barring the use of drop boxes at 5 p.m. on Election Day, in part because it could create long lines at local clerk’s offices already busy with same-day voter registration, also guaranteed under the 2018 constitutional amendment, Clark told legislators.
“I had a line of persons wanting to register at 8 p.m., and you have to take every person in line,” she said. “To put voters then coming into that mix of people from 5-8, adds to the large collection of people.”
Local election officials in west Michigan ““all oppose the idea of closing off their drop boxes to their voters,” added Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, a Republican.
“Expansion of the absentee ballot process is certainly here to stay,” he said.
“I believe it’s an option that our voters truly want, and I think we have to find ways to make this secure and efficient, and particularly not exclude any voters in the process.”
The Senate Elections Committee did not vote on any of the absentee ballot drop box bills Wednesday and is expected to continue debating reform proposals next week.
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