Clerks could be allowed to open ballots early, if bill passes

Absentee ballots could be counted a day early under a proposed state law that passed the Michigan Senate on Tuesday.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — 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.

None of the communities in the Cadillac News coverage area are eligible for the proposed program, as all are too small.

That's fine, according to Lake County's Chase Township Clerk, Amy Patterson.

An extra day to process ballots wouldn't be that helpful because it's already a struggle to get enough election workers. Moreover, election days are long and Patterson wasn't keen on the idea of asking people to work an extra day right before.

What would be helpful?

An extra tabulator.

"If I had a separate tabulator to actually run the absentee ballots through, that would make it easier for us because absentee ballots are the ones that we have the most trouble with running through the machine," Patterson said. Absentee ballots might get folded up, become tacky or otherwise become difficult to run through the tabulator.

"Those are the ones where you're sitting there and you're fighting with it to run through the tabulator," Patterson said.

In Missaukee County, Clerk Jessica Niesen said so far clerks have been able to get absentee ballots processed on election day before polls closed.

"If absentee voting continues to increase at the rate it has been, it might be different," Nielsen noted. "But as of now, I think they are okay with sticking to the procedure we are currently following!"

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 to provide the relief that clerks have been seeking for more than a year.‘

“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.‘