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New voting rules a burden on clerks, could be changed

The presidential primary election on Tuesday, March 10 will be the first statewide election since voters approved the "Promote the Vote" proposal in 2018. Michigan voters can now register the same day they vote, change their vote until the day before the election and take advantage of "no reason" absentee voting. The option of voting by mail is very attractive to voters, and this is expected to dramatically increase participation in elections. However, these new rules place an additional burden on the local clerks who are tasked with managing the state's ballots and elections.

"We're working hand in hand with all of our clerks around the state to make sure they're prepared for what we already know is going to be a significant increase of people registering to vote up to [Election Day], on Election Day and voting from home," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in an address to the Detroit city council on Tuesday, Jan. 28. "This is the first statewide election on March 10 that we'll see this in play. We have to prepare for that."

“It's making it a little bit more difficult on the actual Election Day," said Lowell city clerk Susan Ullery. "By adding people registering to vote, you're adding more to the regular Election Day duties, but it's not complicated. We would just get them registered here in our offices, then we print off a receipt, they take that receipt up to the precinct and the precinct workers will get them registered into the [electronic pollbook] and issue a ballot then.”

Another issue slowing the process is that under the current law, clerks are not allowed count any of the absentee ballots until Election Day. They are also prohibited from preparing for the count by taking the inner envelope that contains the ballot out of the outer envelope that conceals it.

"Right now, the law says clerks are not permitted to even open envelopes and process ballots until election morning," Benson said in Detroit on Jan. 28.

“When those are mailed to us, we check those in and then they go into a locked, fireproof file drawer up until Election Day,” Ullery said. “Then we bring all of those absentee ballots up to the precinct, where they are then processed. I think it would be great if we could process the absentees ahead of time.”

Ruth Johnson, a current state senator and the former Michigan Secretary of State, introduced two bills recently [SB 756 and SB 757] with the intention of tweaking the law a bit to make the process smoother for the vote counters.

"Clerks would be able to open that first envelope and pull out the second one, and that is then kept in a room that is locked and very secure," Johnson said in an interview with NPR on Wednesday, Jan. 29. "But the ballots can never be exposed, because that's when we've had problems in the past with people changing them."

"This is something that we're sounding the alarm on now, and we have the benefit of seeing other states who have gone through this, who have reached the same solution and conclusion," Benson said in an interview with NPR on Wednesday, Jan. 29. "It's, to me, an easy change to make if you do so securely and carefully."

SB 756 would change the law to add a section that says, “If the clerk of a city or township with a population of 40,000 or more provides written notice to the secretary of state at least 40 days or more before election day, the clerk of that city or township may allow the election inspectors appointed to an absent voter counting board in that city or township to work in shifts."

SB 757 would also change the law by adding a section allowing the envelopes to be opened early with permission: "If the clerk of a city or township with a population of 40,000 or more provides written notice in compliance with this subsection to the secretary of state 40 days or more before election day, that city or township clerk or his or her authorized designee may, between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm on the day before election day, perform certain absent voter ballot pre-processing activities."

There are 1,240 township clerks, 280 city clerks and 83 county clerks, a total of 1,603 officials directly involved in each election in Michigan. Additionally, the Secretary of State acts as the chief election officer who supervises all of these people and their duties. Michigan is the largest of the eight states that administer elections on the local level like this, therefore Michigan has the most decentralized election system in the US.

“We have six election workers that are going to work all day, then we have three different election workers that are going to be coming in and working half days,” Ullery said. “That is about the same as we usually have. We'll have special paper on hand in case we were to happen to run out of ballots, then we're able to print new ballots right here.”

If you want to read Johnson's bills for yourself, visit http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2020-SB-0756 and http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2020-SB-0757.

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