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Legislature sends elections deal to governor’s desk to allow some pre-processing of absentee ballots

Karel Vega

After months of negotiating, the Michigan Legislature has reached a deal on election bills that would allow local clerks in municipalities with more than 10,000 residents to start pre-processing absentee ballots two days before an election.

That translates to letting them open return envelopes on absentee ballots. They could also verify ballot numbers on stubs. They would still be barred, however, from counting votes before polls open on Election Day.

Representative Ann Bollin (R-Brighton Twp) chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee. She said reaching agreement on priorities was the hardest part of the negotiations.

“You want everybody to win something. But I think [what] motivated everybody is to really work to make sure we are protecting our voters and ensuring that our voters have access and ... restoring confidence, making sure we have good, solid voter rolls. This is just a start,” Bollin said ahead of voting on the measures Wednesday.

According to the state’s running list of signed and vetoed bills from this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed more election bills that reached her desk than signed them.

The governor’s staff has not directly said if she plans to sign the legislation.

“Governor Whitmer has always said she will work with anyone to get things done and put Michiganders first. 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. We’ve worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pass and sign into law more than 900 bills, and are confident we can carry this bipartisanship forward on legislation to improve our state’s elections too,” Whitmer’s spokesperson Bobby Leddy said in a statement.

Critics say the compromise legislation doesn’t do enough to ensure clerks can fully pre-process absentee ballots before an election.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum noted the legislation doesn’t let local clerks remove secrecy envelopes. Combined with the time limitations, she worried fanfare around the bill package would set clerks up to be blamed if election results are not immediate.

“The Republican Legislature has failed to listen to election professionals. Certified — state certified and nationally certified, in many cases — election professionals in what we need to more efficiently and securely conduct our elections,” Byrum said.

The Michigan Department of State has been supporting a longer pre-processing period for years.

In 2020, lawmakers temporarily let clerks do that pre-processing one day before the election. This week’s legislation removes a sunset provision in that law and adds a Sunday for pre-processing too.

“Two days is a pretty low number and that’s one of things that sort of remains to be seen is whether that’s sufficient in Michigan for clerks to really handle the volume of absentee ballots in those two days. The best practice is seven days. We would have liked to see more but we’re glad to see that step in the right direction,” State Department spokesperson Jake Rollow said Thursday.

The legislation also requires county clerks to scrub the deceased from their lists of registered voters at least monthly. Currently, county clerks send a list of voters who possibly died to local clerks to handle the work of removing them.

Cleaning up the voter rolls has been a large Republican talking point, with a March report from the state Auditor General finding some exceptions to the sufficient integrity of the state’s qualified voter file.

Rollow, however, said he doesn’t see the new legislation making much difference.

“By and large, the vast majority of people who have died have already been canceled from our voter registration list,” he said. “I think that the important thing to remember is that Michigan elections are very secure and very accurate. And so, the focus on this issue is sort of just a bit of a red herring.”

Other items in the legislation would expand the types of locations eligible to become polling locations, and open up a process for service members to return their ballots electronically.

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