Michigan Legislature eases processing of absentee ballots

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan lawmakers voted Thursday to make it easier for clerks to process a surge in absentee ballots in the battleground state's presidential election by letting them start a day earlier than normal.

Election officials currently cannot remove ballots from outer envelopes until 7 a.m. on Election Day, which this year is Nov. 3. Legislation sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her expected signature would allow them to be opened between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2, in cities or townships with at least 25,000 residents. Ballots would have to remain in secrecy envelopes until being counted on Nov. 3.

The change is intended to help avoid delays in counting the vote due to so many more people voting absentee. The option was significantly expanded under a 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment and has become especially popular during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican-led House passed the bill 94-11. The GOP-controlled Senate approved an earlier version last week and then shipped the final measure to the Democratic governor on a 35-2 vote.

A record 2.4 million people had requested absentee ballots as of Monday, which is quadruple the number of requests during the same period in 2016.

The House amended the legislation to add facets of other bills that had been under consideration. Changes include allowing for shifts at absentee counting boards so that tired workers no longer have to stay so long and requiring clerks to notify a voter whose ballot application or ballot is rejected because the signature on the application or envelope does match what is in the database.

In the August primary, 1,438 absentee ballots were rejected because they had no signature and 787 were tossed because the signature was determined not to match. About 6,400 did not count because they came in too late.

The bill also was revised to include security requirements for newly installed boxes where voters can drop off absentee ballots instead of using the mail.

“These are common sense measures that will help our clerks and election workers while preserving integrity,” said the sponsor, Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican and former secretary of state. “This legislation will allow our local election officials to efficiently and securely process the estimated 3 million absentee ballots expected to be cast in this November’s election.”

House Republicans rejected Democrats' proposals to let all municipalities — not just 72 — process ballots sooner and allow clerks to begin opening outer envelopes three days, instead of one day, before the election.

Rep. Vanessa Guerra, a Saginaw Democrat, noted that the legislation would only apply to the 2020 election and said legislators will have to revisit it in the next two-year session.

“This November will not be the last election we have and certainly won't be the last election where we see an increased number of (absentee) voters,” she said. She added that local budgets are tight and expressed concern about municipalities' financial ability to ensure required video monitoring of drop boxes located outdoors — unless the state provides funding.

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