Senate committee OKs bill to create online tracking system for absentee voting
A city of Detroit early voting ballot drop box located in Clark Park. The box, which is located in a largely Latinx community, is one of 13 vote and drop box sites in Detroit | Ken Coleman
The Michigan Senate Elections Committee this week approved bills that would seek to streamline the absentee voting process by creating an online tracking system for applications and the ballots themselves.
SB 339, sponsored by Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D- Royal Oak), would allow voters to track their absentee ballot at every step of the process, from registration to dropbox. It was approved in committee on Wednesday.
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A counterpart bill, HB 4594, in the House Elections Committee has yet to be approved, but contains the same content. The sponsor, Rep. Dylan Wegela (D-Garden City), testified in its support in a Wednesday hearing.
Wegela said that implementing an absentee ballot tracking system would fulfill the provisions of Proposal 2, the constitutional amendment Michigan voters approved in 2022 expanding voting rights.
“House Bill 4594 directs the Secretary of State to not only enhance the tracking system for absentee applications and ballots, but to permit voters to track and receive notifications about the status of their applications and balance,” Wegela said.
The Secretary of State’s current tracking system allows voters to see when their application has been approved, when their ballot is mailed to them, and when it has been received by their local clerk.
An updated tracking system as outlined in the bills would maintain those checkpoints, but add information letting voters know if their application or ballot has been rejected, with a statement on why the rejection occurred and directions on how to rectify it. Users would opt in to notifications via text message or email.
A representative for Pure Integrity Michigan Elections (PIME), an election denier group established after the 2020 election that former President Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden, testified Wednesday against the bill. The group asserts that allowing the Secretary of State’s office to implement a new tracking system would be unconstitutional. Sheri Ritchie said that while PIME supported the principle of the bill, its members would prefer if a nonpartisan committee created the system.
“PIME recommended that a bipartisan committee be instituted to establish, acquire or approve an electronic system for tracking absentee ballots, and further recommended that this committee consists not only of legislators, but also clerks from each major political party,” Ritchie said. “Clerks have the most knowledge of and the most at stake in election processes and should be included.”
Other concerns on SB 339 were expressed by Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), a former secretary of state who said she was worried about the privacy of voters’ information with a new tracking system. McMorrow made a substitute to the bill addressing this issue, and said that information used in the system would not be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
“We worked in language in the substitute to ensure that email addresses and telephone numbers provided by the electors to opt into receiving notifications for official election purposes only,” McMorrow said. “And it will keep that confirmation that contact information confidential and exempt from a FOIA.”
When asked in testimony how a new tracking system would differ from the current one, Wegela said that he hoped increased transparency about the absentee voting process would empower people to make sure their ballot is counted, in spite of any administrative roadblocks.
“I believe maintaining trust in our electoral process is paramount to our democracy,” Wegela said. “This transparency and accessibility that the bill provides is essential to maintaining that trust in this election process and our electoral processes.”
Other bills concerning elections and voting are currently being considered in both the House and Senate, including a long-delayed bill that would allow 16-year-olds to be pre-registered to vote with the aim of increasing youth voter turnout.
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