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Lansing — A proposal that would allow clerks in large Michigan cities to begin processing absentee ballots early in hopes of preventing delays in tallying votes on Election Day sets a "dangerous precedent,"  Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said Wednesday.

Allowing local clerks to open the return envelopes containing absentee ballots before Election Day is "the nose of the camel underneath the tent" toward counting votes early, said Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake.

"If I had to choose between early voting, early counting, versus late reporting, I'll take late reporting all day long," he said.

According to Michigan clerks, late reporting of results is likely in the state's November general election because of high turnout and an expected jump in absentee voting.

In 2018, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that allows for no-reason absentee voting. November will bring the first presidential election under the reform. Previously, voters had to meet certain criteria, like being older than 60 or being out of town on Election Day, not to vote at the polls.

For the November election, clerks worry that without a change in state policy to allow them to begin processing absentee ballots early, results will be delayed because of the longer time it will take to open and scan each of the absentee ballots the day of the election.

“We need to be prepared for the possibility that we may not get all of our results in even until early in the morning,” Michigan  Elections Director Jonathan Brater said earlier this month.

Janice Winfrey, the clerk in Michigan’s largest city, Detroit, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have also both pushed for a change in state policy.

Winfrey said she expects to have to count more than 80,000 absentee ballots for the November election. The total could even reach higher than 100,000 absentee ballots, she said. 

If state lawmakers don’t provide election workers more time to process absentee ballots, she may not be able to have results until the early morning hours of the day after the election, Winfrey said.

The Senate Elections Committee last week referred a bill to the full chamber that would allow clerks in a municipality with more than 10,000 voters to perform pre-processing on the absentee ballots starting at 10 a.m. the day before the election.

The legislation would allow officials to remove the secrecy envelope, which contains the absentee ballot, from the mailing envelope. But the ballot could not be removed from the secrecy envelope until the time of tabulation on Election Day. 

“It’s a great way to give the clerks a way to pre-process,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican and former secretary of state. 

Shirkey argued on Wednesday that if the state allowed election workers to open envelopes before Election Day, "you have to have somebody there to make sure they're just doing that."

"We have a process right now," Shirkey added. "Let's see how that works."

In a 106-2 vote, the state House approved Wednesday legislation that would allow small municipalities to enter an agreement with the county clerk or a larger jurisdiction to form an absent voting board that would process absentee ballots. 

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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