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Michigan Senate votes to let clerks open absentee ballot envelopes day early

LANSING — With the presidential election less two months away, the Michigan Senate on Tuesday approved long-debated legislation to give clerks a one-day jump start on processing absentee ballots to prepare them for the official count. 

Clerks have spent months asking lawmakers for flexibility on absentee ballots, which they are expecting in record volumes this year because of the coronavirus pandemic and a new Michigan law that allows no-reason absentee voting.

Michigan law now allows clerks to process absentee ballots only on Election Day, but that would be a “recipe for disaster” this year and delay results reporting in a closely watched presidential election, Democratic and Republican clerks wrote to lawmakers Tuesday in a joint letter. 

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The Senate plan, approved in a 34-2 bipartisan vote and now headed to the House, would allow clerks in cities or townships with 25,000 or more residents to open an outer envelope of an absentee ballot between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. the day before the election. That couldn’t happen unless an election inspector from each major political party was present. 

Ballots would remain in a separate secrecy sleeve. Those sleeves would be placed in secure containers, which would be examined by a county canvasser to ensure security, and could not be opened until Election Day. 

"It's not everything we wanted, but it will definitely help many of our communities," said Lansing Clerk Chris Swope, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. "This is the limit of what the Legislature is willing to consider at this time, so it is a positive.”

Local election officials had asked for more time for absentee ballot pre-processing, especially in larger communities. They also wanted permission to open secrecy envelopes and unfold absentee ballots to prepare them for the Election Day count.

The Senate legislation doesn’t go that far but is still important, said Delta Township Clerk Mary Clark, vice president of the statewide clerks association. “This will help us preserve the integrity of the election and still help us to be able to report results on election night,” she told Bridge. 

Clerks say absentee ballots take considerably longer to process than in-person ballots. Election workers must compare the signature on a voter's absentee ballot envelope to state records, open the outer mailing envelope, then open an inner secrecy sleeve, remove, unfold and flatten ballots to prepare them for counting by a voting machine tabulator. 

The Senate bill would require unopened secrecy sleeves to be placed in a sealed container until Election Day, but the legislation does not spell out what would happen if that seal is broken, said Sen. Tom Barrett, a Charlotte Republican who voted against the measure. 

“Certainly those voters deserve to have their ballots counted, but what do we do about the actual security and certainly of that particular box of ballots that was partially processed by not finally tabulated?” Barrett asked in a floor speech. 

“The election results this year could be extremely close in Michigan … so to me, we have to err on the side of certainty and less on the side of convenience.”

Senate Elections Committee Chair Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican who served as Secretary of State through 2018, introduced the absentee ballot pre-processing legislation in late January and it passed her committee in February. But GOP legislative leaders initially balked at the bill, declining to take it up ahead of the March or August primaries. 

At the time, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey warned that pre-processing absentee ballots could set a "dangerous precedent” for early voting, but the Clarklake Republican later indicated he'd be willing to consider the bill depending on how primary elections played out. 

Michigan appeared to pass its first test in the August primary, when a record 1.5 million voters cast absentee ballots. While some results were slower, local clerks avoided the one- or two-day delays election officials had predicted.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and local officials are predicting even higher rates of absentee voting in the presidential election. More than 2.1 million voters had already requested absentee ballots by Sept. 8, according to the office of Benson, a Democrat. 

In Lansing, Swope predicts 40,000 voters will cast absentee ballots, nearly four times as many as 2016. Delta Township is expecting a similar surge after more than 8,000 voters cast absentee ballots in the August primary, twice as many as usual, according to Clark.

Absentee ballot requests are rolling in and “more come every day,” she said. “There's going to be big turnout – big.”

An extra day to open envelopes could also minimize crowding at the absent voter counting board in Lansing, said Swope, who told Bridge he used more than 40 workers to count the 18,000 absentee ballots cast by local voters in the August primary.

"To do four times that amount? I don't really have a lot more space to put people," Swope said. "We're going to be increasing the risk [for COVID transmission.] We're going to want to keep that spacing."

Because absentee ballots take longer to process, many clerks have had to hire additional staff. Delta Township would normally hire about 12 workers for its absent voter board but will bring on 36 for November, in addition to a handful of regular staffers, according to Clark.

"We pay $12 an hour, so it is more money," she said. "But elections are very important to the core of what America is, so you just suck it up and get it done, in terms of money."

With the Legislature moving slowly, Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum last week asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to issue an executive order allowing local officials to pre-process ballots up to 48 hours before an election. 

The Senate legislation is "a step in the right direction," Byrum said Tuesday. "It's high time the legislators listen to professional election administrators."

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