Michigan Senate Approves More Time to Process Absentee Ballots

September 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan’s Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday approved a bill allowing the state’s larger municipalities to begin processing an expected surge of absentee ballots prior to Election Day.

The legislation, which passed 34-2 with strong bipartisan support, would allow clerks in communities with at least 25,000 residents to open return envelopes for ballots the day before Election Day.

Currently they are prohibited from opening the ballots until the polls open on Election Day. 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.

The GOP-controlled House will consider the measure next. 

On 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.

Local election officials of both parties have been lobbying for the extra time for months, arguing that the passage of a 2018 ballot initiative that lets people cast an absentee ballot for any reason would dramatically increase their use.

Though the coronavirus outbreak added to the urgency of their pleas, the Senate remained reluctant to move on the measure until a record 1.6 million people voted absentee in the state’s August primary, nearly two-thirds of all those who cast a ballot.

Election officials are predicting that more than 3 million Michigan residents will vote by absentee ballot in November.

In a letter to legislative leaders delivered Tuesday, more than a dozen clerks  — both Democrats and Republicans — said processing an absentee ballot takes far more time than recording an in-person vote.

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

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

Secretary of State Benson, a Democrat, said while the bill is a step in the right direction, it simply does not go 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.”

On Wednesday, Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged voters who choose to vote from home to avoid possible U.S. Postal Service delays by mailing their ballots back as soon as possible, or hand delivering them to their local election clerk’s office or ballot drop box. 

Starting Sept. 24 local election clerk offices will send absentee ballots to voters and have them available for early in-person voting. 

Whitmer also noted that Michigan citizens who are not registered and do not have a state ID or driver’s license can register at their local election clerk’s office.

“Already we’ve had three successful elections this year which saw record turnout, record numbers of citizens voting by mail, and little to no crowding on Election Day. We are on track to replicate this success in November,” Benson said. “Our clerks are doing their part, working tirelessly as they have all year to juggle unprecedented challenges while embracing record turnout. But they and voters need support from the federal government and our state legislature.”

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