Benson, Detroit clerk press for early processing of absentee ballots

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is advocating for legislative changes that will allow local clerks to process an anticipated uptick in absentee voter ballots ahead of the first statewide election since new laws went into effect, expanding options to vote.

Benson told Detroit's City Council in a Tuesday appearance that she expects more individuals will turn out to vote due to same-day registration and that absentee voting in Detroit alone will at least be doubled. The voting changes, she added, increase the "time, stress, and pressure" for local clerks to "deliver results."

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, left, and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, talks about the upcoming elections and early absentee voting earlier this year.

"This is the first statewide election on March 10 that we'll see this in play. We have to prepare for that," Benson said. Right now, the law says clerk's are not permitted to even open envelopes and process ballots until election morning."

The Democratic official made the same proposal 10 months ago to a Republican-controlled state House committee. At the time, House Elections and Ethics Committee Chairwoman Julie Calley, R-Portland, said an early tally of absentee ballots carries challenges because Michigan voters are allowed to change their ballots up to the day before the election. 

State voters in 2018 approved a "voting rights" initiative, or ballot Proposal 3, which amended the state's Constitution to allow no-reason absentee voting by mail, reinstate straight-ticket voting and let residents register to vote up to and on Election Day.

In November 2019, 2,000 eligible residents registered to vote in the 14 days leading up to Election Day in several local races. Of those, 1,000 took place on Election Day itself, Benson said. 

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey joined Benson Tuesday in asking the council to urge state lawmakers to allow the anticipated influx of absentee ballots to be counted prior to Election Day.  

Winfrey said she's sent a letter to state lawmakers on behalf of the Detroit and Wayne County clerks, asking for consideration to begin processing absentees the Friday prior to election day. Winfrey doesn't want her staff to run the ballots through tabulators. The clerks are "only asking if we can begin to prepare" by placing ballots in transfer cases for prompt processing, she said. 

"This is going to be very important for Detroit because we are the largest municipality in the state," Winfrey said. "It's going to be key if you want your election votes by Election Night."

Turnout in the March 10 primary is expected to be 26% of registered voters, up from a low of around 8% in another recent primary, officials said. 

Council members on Tuesday supported a motion by Pro Tem Mary Sheffield to prepare a resolution to urge the state Legislature to allow for ballots to be processed early.

Benson said she's been making the case to have the state law amended for ballot processing rules for the last year. 

"I like to think of it as our Constitution was amended by the voters," she said. "Now, the state legislature needs to update our state statutes to catch up with the new rights. That's ultimately all this is and hopefully this won't get bogged down by silly politics."