Editorial: Michigan should adopt early voting

The Detroit News

Michigan should update its election process, which in its current form unnecessarily restricts voter access and discourages turnout. Voting is the bedrock of American democracy, and over the past several years, dozens of other states have made it increasingly easier for citizens to cast ballots. Michigan needs to get on board.

There are two things the state could do to improve the voting experience and expand access for more eligible voters: Adopt early voting and make absentee voting available to anyone, for any reason.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia allow any qualified voter to cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. No excuse or justification is required.

That flexibility makes it easier for voters who have conflicts on Election Day, or would simply prefer to cast their vote prior to the final deadline. Similarly, it can diminish long lines and worries about inclement weather.

Michigan should encourage it as most other states do, if only for the sake of midterm elections and off-year primary elections, when voter turnout is pathetically low.

About 60 percent of the eligible population votes in Michigan during presidential elections. That drops to about 40 percent for midterm elections. The numbers go down from there during primary and local elections.

But the number of people voting early in presidential elections nationwide has significantly increased over the past two decades. In 2000, only 16 percent of presidential votes were cast early, according to the AP Election Research Group. By 2012, 36 percent of votes were cast early. This year 30-40 percent of votes are expected to be cast before Nov. 8.

Those increases show voters prefer flexibility. Michigan voters are likely no different.

In fact, this year there’s been increased interest in absentee ballots — currently Michigan’s only form of early voting — among Michigan voters. Requests have already increased almost 5 percent over the same period in 2012, and the ballots are being returned by mail or in person to local clerks at a faster rate than four years ago.

Changing the law to allow voters to request absentee ballots for no specific reason would undoubtedly increase voter participation.

Currently, Michigan voters have to be at least 60 years old, unable to vote without assistance in person, expected to be out of town on Election Day, or in jail awaiting arraignment or trial. Religious reasons also count.

Last year the House passed a bill that would allow anyone to get an absentee ballot, provided he or she is a registered voter. Secretary of State Ruth Johnson strongly supported the bill, but it has stalled in the Senate. It should be passed and signed by the governor.

The average voting wait time in Michigan to cast a presidential ballot in 2012 was 22 minutes, fifth-longest in the country, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Many voters don’t want to wait in line, or don’t have the time.

The state should do everything it can to encourage the desire to vote. Early voting and any-reason absentee ballots would help improve voter turnout.