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Michigan’s upcoming March 10 presidential primary will be the first true test of whether clerks are ready to handle the uptick in absentee voters expected to result from the 2018 constitutional amendment that made sweeping changes to state voting laws. Any change to ease the counting of ballots must preserve the integrity of the voting process.

Local clerks are rightfully concerned about how to handle the influx of absentee ballots, now that the state allows for no-reason absentee voting. Delays are likely, and no state wants to be the next Iowa. 

Recent estimates are that Michigan voters have returned 325,836 absentee ballots ahead of the primary — a 55% increase over the same point before the 2016 presidential primary. Those numbers will be much higher leading up to the November presidential election. Typically turnout for primary elections is low.

More: Shirkey: 'Conversations' on handling spike in absentee ballots continue

More: Expect absentee ballot surge to delay Michigan election results

Lawmakers have introduced several bills that could give clerks some additional flexibility. Clerks have been warning that especially in November results could be delayed given the absentee spike. 

Currently, clerks aren’t allowed to open ballots until Election Day. Absentee ballots require some extra maneuvering since they are returned to clerks in separate envelopes and clerks also have to verify voter signatures. 

Protecting the secrecy of results until after polls close is imperative. There are valid concerns about giving clerks and other election workers the ability to open ballots early — the fear is they could inform campaigns or operatives of initial results. 

The proposed legislation takes election security into consideration, and is supported by House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, raised initial concerns about allowing any change to current guidelines, but has since said he’s open to discussing it. 

Earlier this month, the Senate Elections Committee referred two bills, sponsored by Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, and former secretary of state, to the full chamber. According to the Senate Fiscal Agency:

►In the event of an early count, the clerk “could allow election inspectors appointed to an absent voter counting board to work in shifts,” but inspectors could not leave the counting location “after tallying had begun until polls closed.”

►Another bill would allow clerks to start processing absentee ballots the day before Election Day, as long as they've alerted the Secretary of State 40 days prior to the election. Election officials could remove the secrecy envelope containing the absentee ballot from the mailing envelope, but the ballot itself would need to stay in the secrecy envelope.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has said she’d like clerks to have even more leeway, including letting them remove absentee ballots from their inner envelopes and stack them.

A separate House bill, sponsored by House Elections and Ethics Committee Chair Julie Calley, R-Portland, would allow small municipalities and local clerks the option of forming an absent voting board with a county clerk or other jurisdiction, to process absentee ballots. 

Her bill passed the House with broad support, and awaits action in the Senate. 

These seem like reasonable measures that could help clerks prepare for what’s likely to be a high-turnout November election. 

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