Michigan lawmakers give clerks more time to process ballots

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Legislature gave final approvals Thursday to a bill that would give local clerks 10 hours extra before the election to begin processing absentee ballots, a nod to the expected uptick in absentee voting in the general election.

The bill also changed protocol for signature mismatches on absentee ballots, increased security around ballot boxes, and allowed for shifts of workers on the absent voter counting board the day of the election.

An absentee voting ballot for the Charter Township of Canton in Wayne County is shown.

The legislation passed 94-11 through the House and was concurred on by the Senate 35-2. The bill is headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk next.

Nearly 2.4 million voters had requested absentee ballots as of Tuesday, building toward what’s expected to be record mail-in participation during the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, will help clerks to better meet the unique demands of the Nov. 3 election, she said.

“These reforms can help reduce mistakes caused by election officials working long hours by allowing local clerks to begin preprocessing absentee ballots to prepare them to be counted more quickly on Election Day and allowing clerks to shift in fresh workers at absentee voter counting boards,” said Johnson, who served as Secretary of State prior to Democrat Jocelyn Benson’s election in 2018.

While the bills passed by large margins in the House and Senate, Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, reiterated concerns about the ballots' storage in a secure container and the lack of provisions in the bill addressing what happens if the seal on that container is broken.

“I really hope those who are voting for this don’t have regrets on Nov. 3 or 4,” Barrett said.

The legislation would allow clerks to begin opening envelopes from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. the day before Election Day, but only for the Nov. 3 election.

The legislation bars workers from pulling the absentee voter ballots from the secrecy envelopes, which must be placed in a secure container after being opened and until Election Day. It also requires bipartisan election inspectors to be on hand during the opening.

Communities with a population of 25,000 or more wishing to participate in the program are required to notify the Secretary of State 20 days before the election.

The legislation included several provisions added Thursday, including a requirement for clerks to contact an individual whose absentee ballot signature did not match state records.

The addition had been requested by Benson, who was concerned about some ballots being discarded because of an omission or handwriting change.

Benson also had asked the Legislature to change the law so that ballots postmarked before election day would be counted if received in the few days after the election. Instead, Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens ruled Friday that clerks are required to count ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 and received within 14 days of the election. 

The Legislature is challenging the ruling and criticized it in a Senate Concurrent Resolution passed along party lines Thursday, arguing Stephens' order "delays election results and causes severe and serious problems with election administration."

The legislation passed Thursday also requires communities to secure their absentee ballot drop boxes through several measures including video monitoring if located outside.

Lastly, the Legislation allows for a clerk to set up shifts of workers for the absent voter counting board. The second shift would be able to begin any time on election day, but workers on the first or second shift could not leave until after the close of polls.

At no time can there be a gap in shifts or absent ballots left unattended.

A separate bill also passed by the House and Senate Thursday would allow active duty military members to submit their completed absentee ballots by email.