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Michigan lawmakers may allow clerks to pre-process absentee ballots

Absentee ballot voting surged in 2020 amid the pandemic and a contested presidential election. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Absentee ballots must be available to Michigan voters Thursday
  • Lawmakers are nearing deal that would give clerks two days to pre-process returns
  • Surge of absentee ballots delayed results in 2020

Sept. 28: Michigan lawmakers reach deal on letting clerks pre-process absentee ballots

LANSING — Michigan election officials will begin mailing absentee ballots this week. But with 43 days until the Nov. 8 election, state lawmakers are still debating whether they’ll give clerks additional time to prepare them for counting. 

Clerks have clamored for extra time since 2020, when a crush of absentee voting slowed results reporting on Election Day, fueling former President Donald Trump’s false suggestion he’d won the state even though ballots were still being counted in Detroit and Grand Rapids. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, first called for additional pre-processing time just one week after the 2020 election, acknowledging that the one day lawmakers gave clerks in then was not enough given the state’s new option for no-reason absentee ballots surged with COVID-19.

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Nearly two years later, Shirkey told Bridge Michigan he’s “well beyond 50 percent confident” the Republican-led Legislature will reach a deal that would give clerks more time to pre-process – but not count – absentee ballots before Election Day.

Without GOP legislative action and a signature from Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, clerks would get even less time this fall: Zero days, to be exact. Under current law, clerks are prohibited from opening outer envelopes to prepare absentee ballots still kept in secrecy sleeves until Election Day. 

Shirkey previously recommended Michigan follow the lead of Florida, which gives clerks several weeks to pre-process absentee ballots. But he’s set his sights a bit lower for this fall: He wants to give them two days.

Two days is “on the table” and has been “honestly discussed,” Shirkey told Bridge. “I hope we can land there.” 

The debate will likely come to a head this week in Lansing, where the GOP-led House and Senate will convene for what could be their final session days before the Nov. 8 election.

Any potential deal is expected to include new security rules for dropbox containers and requirements for election clerks to document the chain-of-custody for absentee ballots, measures designed to win over reluctant Republicans whose voters are less likely to believe the 2020 election was legitimate.

"While we want to address pre-processing, we also want to make sure that we have some enhanced security measures and integrity measures along with it,” House Elections Committee Chair Ann Bolin, a Brighton Township Republican and former clerk, told Bridge on Monday.

"Hopefully, we're going to be able to work out some of the final details on this.”

Absentee surge

Michigan expanded absentee voting under a 2018 ballot proposal approved by voters. The state no longer requires voters to provide an excuse in order to vote absentee, and the resulting influx of mail-in ballots “causes some people to be uncomfortable,” Shirkey told Bridge. 

“I'm not personally uncomfortable with them, and I think we need to allow the clerks the time and latitude to handle them,” the term-limited Senate GOP leader said, predicting a “pretty significant number” of absentee ballots in what could be a “decent turnout” election. 

A record 3.3 million Michiganders voted by absentee ballot in the 2020 presidential election, more than doubling the 1.3 million in 2016. All told, 59 percent of Michigan voters used the option two years ago, an uptick partially attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Clerks say absentee ballots take longer to count than in-person votes because election workers must verify voter signatures and open outer envelopes before opening a separate secrecy sleeve and flattening ballots to feed through tabulators.

In 2020, lawmakers gave clerks ten hours on the day before the election to open the outer return envelopes, verify absentee ballot numbers and place secrecy sleeve-covered ballots into a secure container for counting once in-person polls opened the following morning. 

Nationwide, 38 states  allow election officials to begin pre-processing absentee ballots before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some states allow pre-processing as soon as a ballot is received. Others allow between one and 30 days.

Ten states allow early counting of absentee ballots but make it a crime to release results ahead of Election Day.

Democrats in Michigan, including Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, have advocated for clerks to have as long as two weeks to process absentee ballots.

While Shirkey has advocated for an extended pre-processing window for nearly two years, the legislative process is slow because “everybody has their own personal opinions about how elections should be run,” he said, noting a larger debate over election security that has divided Democrats and Republicans. 

Citing Trump’s failed effort to overturn the 2020 election, Whitmer has vetoed every election-related bill the Legislature has sent her, including bipartisan measures the Senate is again advancing that would establish new poll challenger training requirements and add possible polling locations. 

Bollin, who chairs the House Elections Committee, told Bridge she would like to revisit that Senate legislation and is "open to" a deal that would give clerks two days to pre-process absentee ballots.

The House GOP wants additional "security measures" added to or paired with the pre-processing legislation, said Bollin, referencing potential chain of custody regulations that could require clerks to document the physical location of absentee ballots and identify workers who retrieve them from dropboxes.  

Chain-of-custody logs are considered "best practice” and a lot of clerks already maintain them, said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, who chairs the Michigan Council of Election Officials.

"It's not something that I think is overly burdensome" and "it certainly lends another layer of credibility to the process,” he told Bridge. 

While clerks would prefer more than two days to pre-process absentee ballots, the potential legislative deal would essentially “double the amount of time that we were given in 2020,” Roebuck said.  

“I think two days is certainly going to be a huge help.”

You’ve got mail

Michigan clerks were required to mail absentee ballots to military and overseas voters by Saturday. And the state Constitution, as amended by voters in 2018, requires them to make absentee ballots available to all voters by Thursday.

That doesn’t mean clerks must put every requested absentee ballot in the mail this week, but Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said he is on pace to do so. He’ll join election workers Tuesday as they prepare to send out 16,500 ballots.

Printing is done, and ballots have been delivered to the city, Swope told Bridge Michigan on Monday.

”It’s still a process to stuff them (into envelopes), and we do a double-check for accuracy and to make sure we don’t skip any applications. All that stuff takes time.” 

Swope sent out 38,000 absentee ballots in 2020 but said he is not sure he’ll get that many requests this year because COVID is waning and turnout tends to be lower in midterm elections than presidential years. 

Lansing was able to pre-process all its absentee ballots in a single day two years ago, so a legislative deal that would give clerks a second day to open outer envelopes may not make much of a difference locally, he said. 

But Swope, who is on the legislative committee for the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said he is "pretty comfortable" with the chain of custody provisions GOP lawmakers want to add to the absentee ballot proposal.

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