Election officials can pre-process absentee ballots under bill passed by the Legislature

House and Senate reach bipartisan agreement on election reforms

By: - September 29, 2022 2:33 pm

Elections staff are receiving ballots from drivers, allowing voters to walk-in and submit their ballots at City of Detroit Election Commission headquarters, Aug. 3, 2020 | Ken Coleman

As the Nov. 8 election draws closer, Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature came to agreement on a new set of election bills.

The bipartisan set of bills, made up of House Bill 4491 and 6071 and Senate Bill 311 and 8 received final approval Wednesday and await Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature.

“We can all agree that the people of Michigan must be able to vote freely and securely. And we all want our local clerks to have the tools they need to run smooth elections with results our citizens can trust,” state House Elections and Ethics Committee Ann Bollin (R-Brighton Twp.) said in a statement. 

Rep. Ann Bollin

One of the proposed changes would allow election officials to begin preparing absentee ballots for counting two days before the election, something for which clerks have repeatedly asked.

In the U.S., 38 states and the Virgin Islands are allowed to begin processing absentee ballots before the election. According to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, Michigan stands alongside eight other states and Washington, D.C., that allows election officials to begin processing absentee ballots on election day before polls close. 

During the 2020 presidential election, delays in counting absentee ballots fed into conspiracies of election tampering and fraud, which have been repeatedly disproven. The Senate Oversight Committee released a report in June 2021 determining there was no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in the 2020 election. 

In Wayne County, Michigan’s most populous county, more than 566,000 people voted by absentee ballot resulting in a multiple-day delay in delivering results. Included in the total is more than 174,000 absentee ballots from Detroit residents. 

During the vote counting in November 2020, some Republican activists tried to get the process at the former TCF Center shut down.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has discussed an additional two-day pre-processing window. Before the 2020 election, Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to expand on a bill that allowed election clerks in cities or townships with more than 25,000 residents to start pre-processing absentee ballots between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. the day before the election. The effort would have allowed clerks two days of pre-processing time and would have deleted the 25,000 resident requirement.

In a statement Thursday, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said the new changes were a step in the right direction for ensuring timely election results. 

“For years I’ve pressed lawmakers towards this progress, and I will continue to press them to expand these laws and enact the real change all Michiganders need,” Benson said.

“Michigan voters deserve to get their election results on election night, just like the voters of Florida, Ohio and many other states that allow absentee ballot processing before Election Day. It remains to be seen whether an extra two days is sufficient to accomplish this goal, as data and best practices universally recommend at least seven days,” Benson said. 

Benson also criticized a provision allowing active-duty military members stationed overseas to return their ballot electronically for failing to include military spouses and dependents. 

“By unnecessarily excluding military spouses and dependents serving our country overseas from electronic ballot return, the package expands voting rights for some while needlessly discriminating against other members of the military community,” Benson said.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in Detroit May 17, 2022 | Ken Coleman

The military voting provisions and polling location provisions will not be in effect this election. 

The Democrat is being challenged by Republican Kristina Karamo on Nov. 8.

Another bill expands options for communities struggling to find suitable polling locations. Elections could be conducted at privately owned buildings including banquet centers and clubhouses so long as the building is not owned by a candidate or someone who runs a political action committee.

The Legislature also approved a bill that would also require the Secretary of State and county election clerks to review voter rolls every month and remove dead voters. Legislation also creates a chain of custody for ballots placed in drop boxes including better tracking of ballots retrieved from drop boxes. 

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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson is a reporting intern for the Michigan Advance. A recent MSU graduate, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He has reported on community events, breaking news, state policy, and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.

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