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Counting votes quickly and accurately is essential to maintaining public confidence in elections. So is making sure nothing about the tabulating gives an advantage to one side or another.

Michigan's new law allowing no-reason absentee voting, passed by voters last fall, presents a risk to both the efficiency of vote counting and the fairness.

Local clerks who manage elections are rightly worried that they will be overwhelmed by absentee ballots in the 2020 elections.

They’ve already seen a surge in absentee voting in the lighter elections this year. For example, more than two-thirds of Ingham County voters cast absentee ballots in the August primary, as did 76% of Lansing voters.

The fear is that the anticipated huge turnouts for next year's presidential balloting will impact the ability of clerks to count the votes in a timely fashion.

That’s a legitimate concern. Turnout in 2018 was well above typical non-presidential year elections, and predictions are that next year's balloting will be even heavier.

So the clerks are asking the Legislature for help. They want more time to count absentee ballot votes.

Currently, the law requires absentee ballots to be opened and counted on Election Day. Some clerks have requested a change in the law to allow them to begin the count up to 72 hours in advance of the election.

That’s not necessarily the reasonable fix it seems. Early counting of ballots opens the door to mischief, notes former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who is now a state senator and opposes legislative action. 

No matter how many layers of security are built in, leaks are possible. If a partisan in a clerk’s office signals to a campaign the direction the absentee vote is taking, it would give that candidate an unfair advantage in plotting strategy for the final days.

Such information could also affect turnout, if voters believe a candidate is either far ahead or far behind.

Still, some assistance should be offered to the clerks. Extending the reporting of the vote count is an option, though not one we savor.

Allowing the processing of ballots to begin early, but not the actual count, is another. That’s how Maine does it. Rhode Island opens ballots early, but does so in a public meeting where challengers are present to observe the process.

Long-term, Michigan must make investments in speedier tabulators and more vote counting personnel to fully and efficiently implement the new law.

There’s no disputing that clerks will need help next year, and not just with absentee ballots. The new law also allows voters to register on Election Day, which has the potential to slow voting.

Long lines and chaotic vote counting disenfranchise voters. If that happens in Michigan, it will undo the benefits intended from the ballot measure. 

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