With the midterm election looming, state lawmakers passed legislation Wednesday night allowing some Michigan clerks to begin processing — but not tabulating — absentee ballots two days before the election, acting at the last minute on a demand clerks have made for more than two years for additional time to handle absentee ballots before polls open.
The eve before statewide absentee voting begins Thursday, lawmakers also approved a series of changes including new requirements for ballot drop boxes such as requiring election officials to maintain a log each time they collect ballots, which some currently do on a voluntary basis.
Some changes in the legislation would take effect after the Nov. 8 election. One would expand the types of venues that can serve as polling locations to include banquet or conference centers as well as recreation clubhouses so long as they are not owned by a sponsor of a political committee or candidate. Another would allow active duty military members — but not their spouses, as some election officials had hoped — to return their ballots electronically.
One bill would empower county clerks — who maintain death records — to initiate the cancellation of dead voters starting next year. Clerks must reject votes cast by those alive when they return their absentee ballots who die before Election Day.
The legislation received bipartisan support following negotiations between Republicans in the state Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office.
Whitmer has previously vetoed GOP-sponsored bills sent to her desk including similar provisions, raising concerns that those proposals threatened to disenfranchise voters and would burden election officials. But a spokesperson for the governor said "we have a deal with the Legislature" Wednesday.
"Governor Whitmer has always said she will work with anyone to get things done and put Michiganders first," Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy wrote in an email. "When it comes to election reforms, our goal is always to uphold Michiganders' constitutional right to have their voices heard in a safe and secure election."
State Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee, characterized the legislative deal as the culmination of months of back and forth with the governor's office on election law changes.
"We've had a lot of conversations over the last six months about these issues and just never able to really get it to the point where we can agree on it, so I'm very excited that we're able to bring this to a close," she told reporters Wednesday.
"I'm glad the partisan policies have finally been set aside. These are commonsense measures that are all broadly supported," she said in a floor speech Wednesday preceding the vote on the bills.
State Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, heralded the final legislative package headed to Whitmer's desk.
"I think this is a good deal. It will help our clerks and will strengthen the integrity of our elections. It also helps our brave men and women in the military to vote more easily and in a secure manner while serving our nation," she said in a statement.
Some lawmakers had hoped the preprocessing proposal would go further. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, in the wake of the 2020 election, pointed to Florida — where election officials have weeks to preprocess absentee ballots — as a model for Michigan.
"It's not every day that a liberal Democrat from metro Detroit champions Florida's laws, but here we are," said state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield. "Adding one more day here in Michigan is a step in the right direction and I will vote for it, but I don't want anybody here on Election Day this year to fill any voids with conspiracy theories when ballots are still being counted on election night because we did not give clerks the same lead time that election administrators have in Florida and Ohio and Kentucky and Arkansas and states all across the country."
Lawmakers extend preprocessing for absentee ballots to all future elections, expand to more communities
Under Michigan election law, election officials cannot even begin to open the envelopes containing absentee ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
In 2020, lawmakers approved a one-time exception, allowing clerks in municipalities home to a population of at least 25,000 to carry out a handful of steps for processing absentee ballots for 10 hours the day before the election. They were allowed to open the absentee ballot return envelopes and verify that the number on the stub attached to the ballot matched the number on the envelope.
Even with the extra time, the count spilled over past Election Day, resulting in a delay between election night and when unofficial results were available. Some seized upon the lag time to cast doubt on the election.
Election officials — Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan — have pleaded with lawmakers to extend preprocessing and allow it in all communities to help deliver more timely results. In a letter to Michigan lawmakers earlier this year, the leaders of Michigan county and municipal clerks associations warned that inaction on the matter would foster distrust.
The bill approved Wednesday expands the time for preprocessing granted in 2020, giving clerks two days to process ballots. It also modifies the population threshold in place in 2020, allowing municipalities home to at least 10,000 people to preprocess for all future elections. Under the bill, political parties and organizations could designate challengers to observe preprocessing activities.
The legislative proposal comes amid a major change to how election officials transmit results.
Most counties in Michigan no longer use cellular modems to transmit election results, instead uploading the results from memory cards attached to the ballot tabulators driven to local and county clerk's offices. In the recent August primary, the change meant that unofficial results weren't available until the next morning.
State Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, who serves as the minority vice chair of the House elections committee said Monday that while preprocessing may not be a "silver bullet" to expedite election night returns, he called it another "tool in the toolkit."
At the same time, he lamented lawmakers' failure to act to pass legislation on preprocessing absentee ballots earlier.
"I think that the fact that we are still talking about this in the end of September — less than two months before an election that we know for a midterm is likely going to have record turnout — I think it's pretty sad that we are still having this debate. This is something that should have been solved months ago, if not longer," he said.
Bollin, the chair of the House elections committee, blamed partisan politics for the delay during her floor speech.
"They should have been signed into law two years ago," she said of the bills that passed Wednesday. "It's unfortunate that improving election integrity has been twisted into such a partisan and polarizing issue and that it took so long for everyone to come together."
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at email@example.com or 313-296-5743. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan lawmakers pass election law changes before midterm