Lansing — Michigan clerks should have been ready to mail absentee ballots to voters on Jan. 30, the state's elections director indicated in an email to clerks on Thursday, a day after The Detroit News reported concerns about delays in sending ballots.

Jonathan Brater, the elections director under Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, said in his message that by the 40th day before an election — Jan. 30 before the state's March 10 presidential primary — absentee ballots "need to be available for issuance."

"For voters who have requested an AV (absent voter) ballot by mail, this means mailing ballots on day 40," Brater wrote.

"Although some degree of batch mailing is appropriate and advisable, AV requests should be processed, and ballots issued, within 24 hours of receipt of an application (if it's a Friday, this means Monday unless it's the Friday before the election)," Brater added at another point in the message.

Clerks' handling of absentee ballots is getting new attention this year, the first statewide election after voters approved in 2018 a constitutional amendment to require no-reason absentee voting. Previously, voters had to meet certain criteria, like being older than 60 or being out of town on Election Day.

Because of the changes and the high interest in the 2020 election, experts are expecting record levels of absentee voting in Michigan.

As of Friday, jurisdictions in Michigan had sent out 540,973 absentee ballots, according to the Michigan Department of State, a 63% increase from the 332,377 ballots it had sent at the same point before the 2016 primary. The primary four years ago had a record turnout of 2.5 million voters.

But The Detroit News reported Wednesday that voting rights advocates were concerned that some clerks across the state weren't sending out ballots quickly enough ahead of the presidential primary. State law says the ballots should be issued "immediately" after a clerk receives an application within the 40-day window during which the Michigan Constitution now gives registered voters the right to an absentee ballot.

As of Friday, 402 townships in Michigan hadn't reported sending out any ballots or hadn't reported any numbers to the Department of State, according to the office of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Some townships are small jurisdictions, so it's possible that a number of them hadn't received any applications, said Benson spokesman Jake Rollow.

If 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

While it's currently unclear how widespread the delays are, a number of clerks, including clerks in Clinton Township, Macomb Township, Kentwood, Sterling Heights and Warren, have all said they sent their first batch of absentee ballots out days after Jan. 30.

Clerks have said that delays in getting ballots from printers, the time it takes to prepare ballots to be sent and the strategy of sending out ballots in bulk to save on postage all contributed to them mailing ballots after the 40-day window opened.

In his letter to clerks, Brater said the Bureau of Elections will work with vendors to get ballots to local clerks faster and work with counties to ensure that ballots are reviewed as early as possible.

"We know there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into preparing and mailing absent voter ballots, and we know that ensuring the priorities above are met can be difficult when ballots arrive later than expected," Brater wrote.

Brewer, the former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said he was glad to hear of Brater's email to clerks and hoped that clerks would follow it.

In a statement last week, Benson, a Democrat, said state officials "are leaning in to support our local clerks as they encounter challenges" in meeting the absentee voting requirements.

"For example, when we find that a handful of jurisdictions have, for various reasons, encountered delays issuing absentee ballots we let them know, among other things, there is no longer room for error in complying with this requirement and work with them to acquire the tools and resources they need to meet the challenge," she added.

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