Frustrated Michigan clerks call for election reforms: 'Now is the time'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Two organizations that represent hundreds of Michigan clerks called on state lawmakers Monday "to set aside their agendas" and make bipartisan improvements to voting policies ahead of the November statewide election. 

Mary Clark, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, and Marc Kleiman, president of the Michigan Association of County Clerks, made the request in a two-page letter addressed to "state and legislative leaders."

Democrats and Republicans in Lansing have struggled to find common ground on how to change the state's election laws.

Clark, who's the Delta Township clerk, said her organization's members are feeling frustrated about the lack of action 15 months after the November 2020 election threw the battleground state's policies into the national spotlight.

"The things that we need are not happening," Clark said in an interview.

Democrats and Republicans in Lansing have struggled to find common ground on how to change the state's election laws. Former President Donald Trump's supporters have leveled unproven claims that widespread fraud cost him the 2020 vote in Michigan.

The GOP-controlled Legislature has sent bills with their preferred changes to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk, but she's repeatedly vetoed them. General ideas with support from both Republicans and Democrats, like giving clerks more time to prepare absentee ballots for counting ahead of Election Day, have stalled.

"Real leadership is demonstrated by being willing to reach across the partisan aisle and create solutions," the letter from Clark and Kleiman said. "There is no doubt that Americans are divided over the past election; but improvements that lead to better run elections have the power to lessen the tensions of mistrust and unite us in a common goal of accessible and secure elections.

"Our voters deserve a good faith effort by state leaders to make that happen."

Kleiman is the Menominee County clerk.

The letter came 253 days before the November 2022 general election, when Michigan voters will pick a governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

The clerks asked lawmakers to provide funding assistance for "the staff and infrastructure," including drop box security and postage costs, needed to process a surge in absentee ballots after no-reason absentee voting was enacted by voters in 2018.

The officials also requested that lawmakers allow time for pre-processing of absentee ballots to provide accurate and timely election results.

Ahead of the 2020 election, clerks on both sides of the aisle pressed GOP lawmakers to give them additional time to begin processing a deluge of absentee ballots early. But the Legislature only allowed clerks in large municipalities to start working with absentee ballot envelopes — without counting them — from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the day before the 2020 election.

Due to the lack of early processing time and a record 3.3 million absentee votes cast in Michigan, the state's ballots weren't fully tabulated until more than a day after polls closed.

Legislative leaders have acknowledged that the lack of pre-processing time was a problem, but they haven't implemented a fix yet.

The clerks also requested that lawmakers provide more time for audits and certification of primary results by moving the primary election from August to June. Likewise, they asked for a "functional structure" to offer early voting and required training and access for election challengers.

In March 2021, Michigan Senate Republicans unveiled 39 wide-ranging bills to alter state election laws. Their proposals would bar Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from sending out absentee ballot applications unless they are specifically requested by voters and would establish stricter requirements for voter identification.

Whitmer vetoed the bills that would have expanded Michigan's identification requirements for in-person voters and absentee ballot voters. She has said the goal of the GOP election bills was to "perpetuate the big lie," the false claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

Trump lost Michigan's 2020 election to Democrat Joe Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points.

Benson, a Democrat and the state's top election official, said she was proud of the letter clerks released on Monday.

"It’s time for Michigan's legislative leaders to stop acting on misinformation, listen to the experts and strengthen our elections," Benson said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com