Voting advocates: Some clerks failing to send absentee ballots quickly enough
Lansing — Voting rights advocates say they're concerned that some of Michigan's local clerks are violating state law by taking too long to send out absentee ballots ahead of the state's March 10 presidential primary.
The state is expected to see record levels of absentee voting this year after Michiganians approved a constitutional amendment in November 2018 to allow any registered voter to cast an absentee ballot regardless of whether they can otherwise vote on Election Day.
If some clerks continue to delay sending out ballots after they've been requested by voters, thousands of voters could be disenfranchised, said Mark Brewer, an attorney and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.
"The law is clear that absentee ballots must be mailed out immediately upon processing of the application," Brewer said Wednesday.
Under the 2018 amendment, the Michigan Constitution grants voters the right to an absentee ballot 40 days before an election if they apply. Under a separate state law, the clerk must provide an absentee ballot to the voter "immediately" after receiving an application. But some voters who applied for ballots weeks earlier say they still hadn't received their ballots as of Wednesday — six days into the 40-day period.
Brewer called on Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel, two fellow Democrats, to take action to ensure that local clerks comply with the law. He also didn't rule out a lawsuit.
Jake Rollow, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of State, said state officials have heard that some jurisdictions have had delays in issuing absentee ballots.
"We continue to investigate the issue and will be providing guidance and support as appropriate," Rollow said.
While some clerks appear to be complying with the law, others say they're dealing with large numbers of absentee ballot requests and are trying to get ballots out as quickly as possible.
Dan Kasunic, the Kentwood clerk in west Michigan, sent his first round of ballots — 2,700 total — on Wednesday, six days into the 40-day voting window. Considering it's still early February and the election isn't until March 10, there shouldn't be a problem for voters, Kasunic said.
“I think the turnaround time was pretty good for the amount of ballots that we processed," he said.
The job of handling absentee ballot applications and the ballots themselves falls on hundreds of local clerks who work in cities and townships across the state. According to information provided by clerks and voters in more than a dozen municipalities, some clerks, including those in Pontiac, Livonia and Detroit, had already sent out their first round of absentee ballots as of Wednesday morning but others hadn't.
Scott Urbanowski, a voter in Kentwood, said he requested an absentee ballot in late December. But Urbanowski hadn't received a ballot as of Wednesday afternoon, which Kasunic's comments confirmed.
In mid-Michigan, Jeremy Tuller of Charlotte said he requested an absentee ballot weeks earlier but hadn't received his ballot as of Wednesday.
Another mid-Michigan voter, Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, said she requested an absentee ballot from the Onondaga Township clerk and hadn't received it.
"It is concerning to me as an elected official that these procedures are not uniformly followed," Byrum said Wednesday.
"The closer we get to Election Day, the more important timeliness is," she added. "If the law says it needs to be done immediately, it needs to be done immediately."
Byrum used the example of someone who goes out of state for part of the winter. If the ballot doesn't reach the person before they depart, the person may not be able to vote.
Sharon Dolente, a voting rights strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, echoed the idea. Dolente said clerks sending out ballots a week or 10 days after they receive an application could result in voters not being able to submit their ballots in time.
If voters requested their ballots weeks ago and the ballots aren't on their way now, Dolente said, “That is a violation of law, and that is a problem.”
"We have been watching and investigating problems with delays in absentee ballots being mailed out," said Dolente, adding that the organization is "exploring its options."
Dolente noted that voters can use the website www.michiganvoting.org, which includes a hotline so people with questions or who encounter trouble can get help.
The state's election manual recommends that ballots be issued within 24 hours of receiving an application, said Jeremy Howard, Mount Pleasant's clerk and the president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. However, the process of issuing the ballots likely depends on other factors, including the number of requests, he said.
"I believe the municipal clerks of Michigan as a whole are dedicated and strive every day to make the voting process as simple and efficient as possible for voters," Howard said.
Multiple clerks said Wednesday they're trying to get ballots to voters as quickly as possible.
Sterling Heights Clerk Melanie Ryska said her office will begin mailing absentee ballots Friday. Her office is assembling 8,300 ballots, she said.
"This is no small feat, and it takes time to complete this manual process," Ryska said. "Once our initial mailing is complete, we mail absentee ballots on a daily basis as we continue to receive requests."
Similarly, in Macomb Township, Clerk Kristi Pozzi said her office delivered 9,250 absentee ballots to the post office at noon Wednesday.
Pozzi said her office received test ballots from the printer on Jan. 29 and performed recommended testing on the ballots to ensure they will be counted accurately. The testing was completed Tuesday, she said.
"Going forward, absentee mail-in ballots are issued within 24 hours of the receipt of the application, which we comply with on a daily basis," she said.
Lana Thomas, a voter in Macomb Township, said she requested her absentee ballot about a month ago. Thomas said she had also been informed by her local clerk's office that the ballots were going to the post office Wednesday.
Thomas said she's voted absentee for years and she wasn't worried about not having her ballot yet because Election Day is still a month away.
"Now that all citizens are afforded the opportunity to vote by absentee, without an excuse, I’m sure they are inundated," she said of the clerk's office.