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Michigan Senate OKs more time to process absentee ballots

Sen. Ruth Johnson photo
Associated Press

Larger Michigan municipalities could begin processing an expected surge of absentee ballots sooner in the battleground state’s November presidential election under a bill approved Tuesday by the state Senate.

The 34-2 vote in the Republican-led chamber followed months of lobbying from clerks in both parties who warned of significant delays in counting the votes if they must wait until Election Day to open return envelopes. The GOP-controlled House will consider the measure next.

Absentee voting, already on the rise in recent election cycles, is an increasingly popular option during the coronavirus pandemic and following the passage of a 2018 ballot initiative that lets people cast one for any reason. A record 1.6 million people voted absentee in the August primary, nearly two-thirds of all who cast a ballot. Returned absentee ballots could surpass 3 million in November.

The legislation, which had been stalled in the Senate for months despite bipartisan support, would let clerks in communities with at least 25,000 residents open return envelopes for ballots the day before Election Day. They now cannot do so until polls open. Under the bill, the actual ballots would still stay inside secrecy envelopes until counting on Election Day.

Communities wanting the option would have to notify Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson no later than 20 days before Nov. 3.

In a letter to legislative leaders Tuesday, 17 clerks — both Democrats and Republicans — said processing an absentee ballot takes far more time than recording an in-person vote. The Detroit suburb of Livonia saw 4.6 times more absentee ballots in August than it did in the November 2016 presidential election, they said.

“We do not want Michigan and Michigan leaders to be known historically as the ones who failed to avoid a preventable election mess,” the clerks wrote.

While they asked that pre-processing begin seven days before the election, the Senate stuck with one day.

Benson, a Democrat, said the bill is a positive step “but does not go nearly far enough.”

“This bill allows only 10 hours, only minimal processing and includes a sunset provision that requires clerks to continue their advocacy in years to come,” she said. “Ultimately, it does a disservice to the 1,500 election officials who work tirelessly for their communities and our democracy, and doesn’t do enough to bring about more timely election results.”

Also Tuesday, a House committee approved Senate-passed legislation that would allow for shifts at absentee counting boards, so tired workers no longer have to stay so long after the polls close.

Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican who formerly was secretary of state. They “provide safe and secure election processes” while addressing the projected large turnout this fall, she said. She also said it makes sense to let clerks bring aboard fresh workers to handle absentee ballots because people can get fatigued and make mistakes as the process drags on.