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Michigan lawmakers reach deal on letting clerks pre-process absentee ballots

Ann Bollin speaking to reporters
House Elections and Ethics Chair Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, speaks to reporters Wednesday ahead of an expected vote on bills to amend how absentee ballots are processed and other elections procedures. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)
  • The proposal would give clerks two days ahead the election to pre-process — but not count — absentee ballots
  • Clerks had been pushing for the change since 2020 amid an uptick in use of no-reason absentee voting
  • The plan also includes requirements for additional security measures for ballot drop boxes

Michigan lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office have reached a deal on legislation allowing clerks more time to pre-process absentee ballots to speed up the vote count, as well as other tweaks to the election process. 

The Republican-majority Senate voted 33-0 on bills that would let clerks prepare absentee ballots for counting two days prior to Election Day into perpetuity. The Michigan House is expected to take up the legislation later Wednesday.

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

Wednesday is the last scheduled legislative session day prior to Election Day. Rep. Ann Bollin, chair of the House Elections and Ethics Committee, told reporters Wednesday the deal would ease clerks’ burden while heightening election security measures.

Related:

Wednesday is the last scheduled legislative session day prior to Election Day. 

“We think that we got a lot of good solid election integrity measures in there,” said Bollin, R-Brighton. “These are practical solutions to ensure that we have solid elections that are run with a great level of integrity, and the voters have confidence that their vote is going to count.” 

Other parts of the deal would: 

  • Give clerks access to the state’s Qualified Voter File, allowing county clerks to coordinate with the Secretary of State to check for and remove deceased voters
  • Require additional security measures for ballot drop boxes, such as putting them in public locations, implementing a system for monitoring the drop boxes to ensure appropriate chain of custody and limiting access to the drop boxes through locks and small openings
  • Allow active members of the military serving overseas to vote electronically starting after the 2022 election
  • Add additional polling locations starting in the 2024 presidential primary election

The proposed changes would apply to all future elections, although Bollin noted lawmakers might have to revisit the issue if Proposal 2, a ballot initiative that would allow additional days for early voting and other election reforms, passes in November.

Whitmer is on board with the plan as well, spokesperson Bobby Leddy told Bridge Michigan.

“When it comes to election reforms, our goal is always to uphold Michiganders’ constitutional right to have their voices heard in a safe and secure election,” he said.

Senate Democrats supported the bills, but Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, warned two days might not be enough time to stave off ballot counting delays on Election Day.

“Adding one more day here in Michigan is a step in the right direction, and I will vote for it,” Moss said. “But I don't want anybody here on Election Day this year to fill any voids with conspiracy theories when ballots are still being counted on election night.” 

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, had expressed optimism that the Legislature would reach a deal giving clerks more time to pre-process — but not count — absentee ballots ahead of Election Day, acknowledging that the one day lawmakers gave clerks in 2020 to pre-process ballots was not enough given the state’s new option for no-reason absentee ballots.

Shirkey previously recommended Michigan follow the lead of Florida, which gives clerks several weeks to pre-process absentee ballots. But he told Bridge Michigan Monday that two days is what’s “on the table” and said he hoped lawmakers would land there. 

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.

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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.

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