Michigan Senate backs pre-processing of absentee ballots

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing —The Michigan Senate approved legislation 34-2 Tuesday that would allow local clerks more time to process absentee ballots ahead of election day amid a surge in absentee voting prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The bills would allow clerks to begin opening envelopes from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. the day before Election Day, but the legislation includes a sunset provision so it does not continue past the November election.

The bill next advances to the House.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, met with various clerks to understand how this legislation would affect the way votes are tallied for the Nov. 3 election, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Shirkey.

"He put a lot of effort into trying to find a way to move this bill forward to provide some relief to clerks," she said.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called the legislation a "step in the right direction" but said the bill "comes up far short of what our clerks and voters deserve."

Clerks should have at least seven days before Election Day to process the ballots, not 10 hours, Benson argued, citing election research. 

"Ultimately, it does a disservice to the 1,500 election officials who work tirelessly for their communities and our democracy, and doesn’t do enough to bring about more timely election results," Benson said in a statement. 

While the bill allows for the opening of the absentee envelope, workers must not pull the absent voter ballots from the secrecy envelopes, which must be placed in a secure container after being opened until Election Day.

Election inspectors from both parties must be on hand to watch the process as they would on the day of the election. And voters whose secrecy envelopes are opened are not permitted to spoil their ballot and cast a new one once the envelope is opened.

The bill requires clerks to provide notice to the Secretary of State 20 days before the election that they plan to take advantage of pre-processing of ballots.

The bill would apply to a city or township with a population of 25,000 or more, about 78 communities. 

The bill requires the Secretary of State to provide a written report on the use of the pre-processing allowance no later than March 1, 2021, to the House and Senate. 

Sen. Tom Barrett, one of two senators to vote against the bill, expressed concern 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. He expressed hope that the House would address that shortcoming. 

"If that seal is somehow broken ... those ballots are now exposed and there’s nothing in here that says what happens in that event," the Charlotte Republican said. "There could be a lot of ambiguity as to whether or not those ballots should be counted."

Of the record 2.5 million voters in the Aug. 4 primary, 1.6 million cast an absentee ballot. 

As of last week, the Secretary of State's office reported that voters across the state had requested 2.1 million absentee ballots ahead of the November election.

Benson has asked for additional changes to the law that would require clerks to inquire with a voter if there were problems with the absentee ballot signature. She also has asked the Legislature to pass a law allowing a ballot to be counted if it were postmarked before election day.