More Time, Please: MI Clerks, SoS Seek Legislation to Address Absentee Ballot Changes

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Michigan’s Secretary of State and several local clerks are seeking new legislation to permit an earlier start on absentee ballot tabulation in in order to have more time to manage what’s expected to be a significant increase in the number of voters casting such ballots. MILive has more:

A large uptick in the number of Michiganders voting absentee should mean clerks get increased time to count those ballots, according to some local clerks, who have the support of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in calling for legislative action.

When Michigan voters approved Proposal 3 last year, it ushered in a slew of elections changes, including no-reason absentee voting.

Prior to this year, Michiganders needed to have a reason for voting absentee, like being over a certain age or being out of town on election day. Now, nobody needs a reason, and the number of people requesting absentee ballots is increasing across the state.

In Rochester Hills, 81 percent of voters voted absentee in the August elections, said Clerk Tina Barton.

The challenge for local officials is that ballot processing – let alone tabulation – can’t start until first thing on Election Day:

Under current Michigan law those ballots can only be counted starting at 7 a.m. on Election Day, she said, and it’s a time-consuming process. Election workers open the ballot, remove it from its secrecy sleeve, put the sleeve in a box, inspect the ballot for any errors, back-fold the creases, make sure the ballot number on the stub matches the envelope and put the ballots in stacks of 10.

And that’s all before the workers feed the ballots into the tabulators – Rochester Hills has four high-speed tabulators, and Barton said she thinks that may be the most of any municipality in the state. Some cities have one, or none.

In order to get accurate results in a timely matter, she wants workers to be able to start tabulating absentee ballots before 7 a.m. on Election Day. To do that requires a change in state law, which Barton and other clerks are advocating for.

The goal is to cut back on late-night counting sessions and improve accuracy:

Election workers are already working until 3 or 4 a.m., Barton said. In the 2016 presidential election workers processed about 9,000 absentee ballots in Rochester Hills, and with the recent changes she can see the absentee ballot count being as many as 20,000 in November 2020.

“When does it stop? When do they say ok, the processing time and accuracy are in battle with each other here?” Barton asked. “…I just feel like we’re pushing people to the max, here.”

The state’s chief elections official, Jocelyn Benson, is also seeking the change.

“The secretary of state has called for legislation to allow clerks to start counting absent voter ballots before Election Day,” said Benson spokesperson Shawn Starkey.

“Issues associated with clerks handling a larger volume of absent voter ballots are a major point of focus and one of the things the Election Modernization Advisory Committee is looking at,” he said, referencing a committee Benson started to oversee implementation of Proposal 3.

One key legislator – herself a former Secretary of State – doesn’t agree, however:

But those hoping to change the law to count absentee ballots ahead of election day don’t have the support of [former SoS] Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, chair of the Senate Elections Committee.

“I absolutely disagree that early counting of absentee ballots is a good idea,” Johnson said.

She said it would weaken the integrity of the process and increase opportunities for cheating. She’s worried about counts leaking early, discouraging people who are going to vote in person.

And right now, she said, citizens come observe polls for political parties or ballot issues on Election Day. She said observation could decrease because people wouldn’t be able to take several days off from work or family obligations to watch over the process.

One consequence of not making the change, she knows, could be waiting a few extra hours or into the next day for election results.

“I know people want results instantaneously. We’re used to that. But it’s just too important to get wrong,” Johnson said.

“I’ve always said it’s better to be accurate and have integrity than be fast.”

Other counties who have yet to face the issue are already worried about how the absentee ballot increases will affect them later this year and in 2020:

In Fort Gratiot Charter Township in St. Clair County, Clerk Bob Buechler said they haven’t had an election since Proposal 3 was implemented but will have one in November.

The township sent residents a postcard notifying them of their ability to do no-reason absentee voting, and also offered to put voters on a list to automatically be sent an application to vote absentee ahead of elections.

Between 25 and 30 percent of the township’s residents have already applied for absentee ballots, Buechler said, which represents an uptick. But he’s not pushing for changes.

“We’re just going to have to adapt, basically, to make sure we have enough workers there to be able to count all the absentee ballots. So, we’re definitely planning ahead for that,” Buechler said.

For others, those plans include asking the legislature for the change. Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum is among those advocating for changes.

In Lansing’s August election, with 11% voter turnout, 76% of people voted absentee. In Meridian Township, with just under 23% turnout, 58% voted absentee.

“We’re seeing, just with the percentage, that there’s going to be a significant increase,” Byrum said.

She said there have been conversations with lawmakers about the need for changes.

“Even with a high-speed tabulator… we are going to need, local clerks are going to need, the opportunity to start feeding ballots into the tabulator sooner. So maybe the day before, maybe days before,” Byrum said.

Barton doesn’t have a specific timeline she’s asking for but wants Michigan to take a look at what other states with no-reason absentee voting have done.

“I think because the voter habits are changing here in Michigan, something has to be done to change the ability to count or tabulate the ballots,” Barton said.

As the number of absentee ballots increases in many communities, Michigan’s experience could very well reoccur elsewhere. Current laws enacted when absentee ballots were just a small portion of the overall count may end up creating huge issues when the time comes to count them. One possibility is allowing election officials to pre-process ballots (basically, every step but counting) and then begin tabulation at the prescribed time. It will be interesting to see if such a proposal addresses opponents’ concerns; if not, Michigan’s election offices are in for some very late nights going forward. Stay tuned.

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