Secretary of state warns Michigan could be last to report in 2020 election

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Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson holds a press conference to discuss her 30-minute guarantee on Dec. 12, 2019.

Andrew Roth

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson warns that Michigan’s election could be under a national spotlight in November.

East Lansing’s November 2019 election was a small preview. More than 1,000 people registered to vote on Election Day, and the city experienced a 20% increase in absentee ballots.

There are concerns for higher-profile elections such as the state’s March 10 presidential primary. Michigan’s new laws allow no-reason absentee voting, Election Day registration and automatic registration when people apply for a state ID.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson warned that Michigan’s local clerks need changes to make the new laws work.

“It may be if there’s no change in the law that we will not get results of elections in Michigan, particularly next year, until well into the day after—or two days after—the election because it will take that much more time for clerks to process ballots.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

“The later it takes for us to report our results next year, the more likely it becomes that Michigan is the last state to report national election results, meaning that you very well could be targeted or have a special spotlight on us.”

East Lansing City Clerk Jennifer Shuster said the concern is an anticipated high number of absentee ballots, paired with rules about when election officials can begin processing them.

“We are seeing an increase in absentee voting because you no longer need a reason to vote absentee,” said Shuster. “These ballots cannot be counted before 7 a.m. on election day under current law.”

Benson said the solution is to allow clerks to begin processing, and possibly tabulating, absentee ballots before Election Day.

“Every state that now, like Michigan, enables people to vote by mail without a reason enables clerks to begin processing – not counting, necessarily, but processing – meaning affirming the identity, opening the ballot, running it through the machine prior to the close of elections,” Benson said. “I certainly stand with the clerks who are saying we’re not going to have enough time, if the law doesn’t change, for us to process our ballots.”

Use the arrows to see videos and charts.

While Shuster agrees clerks should be allowed to process absentee ballots before Election Day, she does not anticipate that the law will change before the March primary.

Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt, who serves on the Elections and Ethics Committee, said Republicans in the Legislature seem unwilling to consider changes.

“The majority party seems very reluctant to accommodate clerks in this way, which is unfortunate because, as great as these changes are, those changes didn’t also come with resources, so high-speed tabulators and those kind of things that would help them out a little bit,” Hope said. “It might not get rid of the delay in results altogether, but it could mitigate it somewhat.”

Critics have said that allowing clerks to process ballots before polls close could lead to voter fraud and results leaking out, having a chilling effect on potential voters. Benson argues that those in charge of processing the ballots can easily be sequestered and that the bigger threat to accurate results would be requiring officials to work through the night.

“What is most worrisome to me is that we have a lot of hard-working election administrators in our state who will have to stay up all night and into the next day with their absentee counting boards to ensure that this process is completed securely,” Benson said. “Errors happen when people stay up all night processing ballots, trying to get the totals out.”

How we got to this point

Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved the new voting rights in November 2018, passing Proposal 18-3 by a margin of 66.9% to 33.1%. 

Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, introduced the bills that became Proposal 18-3.

“We have an expectation to see higher voter turnout and more absentee voters,” said Bollin. “We want to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote can.”

“I’d imagine in March we will see, probably mostly students, registering the same day,” said Marie Wicks, former city clerk of East Lansing. “I think it will increase absentee voting and voting overall. From the voter perspective, this is phenomenal on all counts.”

In East Lansing, voters who plan to register on Election Day report to the city clerk’s office, not to their regular polling place. After registering, they vote right from the clerk’s office instead of having to return to their polling location. 

“If voters choose to return to their polling location, they will get what is called an identifiable ballot,.That just means the ballot is prepared in a certain way that if the ballot were to be challenged, it could be traced back to the voter. Usually, there would be no way for someone to be traced to their ballot.”

Marie Wicks, former East Lansing city clerk

According to Wicks, one concern regarding the new laws is that people would intentionally or unintentionally vote more than once. The Michigan Bureau of Elections has been working on safeguards to prevent this.

The new laws also “increase the cost for elections overall,” said Wicks. “I know the state is trying to get more funding to local governments.”

Bollin doesn’t foresee any issues on voting day.

“We have a lot of good clerks that we trust to uphold Michigan’s standard of voting integrity,” Bollin said.

Wicks said, “There is a lot of effort that goes into making sure elections run smoothly and getting the results in a timely fashion.”

More changes in voting laws possible

While kinks in the new voting rules are still being worked out, some groups are already looking ahead to potential future changes to Michigan’s election law.

Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, has filed three lawsuits challenging five pieces of Michigan’s election law.

The first law being challenged by Priorities USA requires election officials to compare the signature on an absentee ballot with the voter’s corresponding signature on file and toss any ballots with signatures that do not match the voter’s file.

The super PAC argued that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, noting that there is no process to remedy an absentee ballot being tossed due to mismatched signatures.

“In recent years, this unnecessary provision has led to the rejection of countless votes cast by the citizens across Michigan,” said Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil. “This has compromised the fundamental right to vote while creating unnecessary barriers to the ballot box in the state.”

The second lawsuit challenges laws making it a misdemeanor to:

  • hire companies to transport voters to the polls
  • banning requests to return a completed absentee ballot application for a voter
  • restricting the ability to organize an absentee ballot application drive

Cecil said the lawsuits are an example of Priorities USA “fighting against suppressive voting laws that make it increasingly difficult for marginalized and underrepresented communities to vote in Michigan and around the country.”

The third Priorities USA lawsuit challenges the implementation of two aspects of Proposal 3.

Currently, individuals are automatically registered to vote when obtaining a driver’s license beginning only at 17.5 years old. Anybody obtaining a driver’s license or learner’s permit before that age is not registered until they return to the Secretary of State’s office after they turn 17.5 years.

Additionally, to register to vote within 14 days of Election Day, voters must present documentation satisfying a proof of residency requirement, which Priorities USA argues unfairly affects some groups, such as out-of-state private college students living in dorms who may not have documents to prove residency.

Cecil said that the third lawsuit “places a much-needed emphasis on voting rights for younger voters who wish to make their voices heard in the democratic process.”

“Young people deserve a free and fair registration process that does not limit their access to exercising their right to vote,” Cecil said.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Laura Cox said that the lawsuits, if successful, could lead to an increase in voter fraud.

“This lawsuit is yet another example of the Democrats and their allies trying to weaken Michigan election laws that were put in place to stop voter fraud,” Cox said. “The Michigan Republican Party will fight any attempt to undermine the integrity of our state’s elections or the security of our citizens’ ballots.”

Secretary of State Benson declined to comment on the litigation, but said she may be open to meeting with the group to reach a settlement. She did this with College Democrats at the University of Michigan and other student organizations and with a lawsuit challenging Michigan’s ban on ballot selfies.

“I approach this as someone who’s had a career as an election lawyer and a voting rights attorney, and so I certainly have my views of the law and work to enforce the laws and also defend against legal challenges where we feel that’s necessary,” Benson said. “As we move forward, we still have not even begun to review the current or pending litigation, but we’ll certainly always find ways to reach the right conclusion, whether it’s fighting or settling and also trying to save taxpayer dollars as we move on.”

Not all potential changes would come through litigation. Some are also being proposed as legislation.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, said making Election Day a holiday in Michigan is an option.

“The fact that you’ve chosen a Tuesday for elections is actually sort of a strange relic of old times and had to do with Sunday being the day of worship and then needing one travel day in order to get to where you live to go to the polls,” Hertel said. “I’m sure in agrarian times that was very important, but now that we’re living in modern times, it does seem rather important that access to the polls is one of the most important parts of the process.”

Rep. Julie Brixie, D-East Lansing, added that making Election Day a holiday could open more polling places.

“Some school districts are polling places and chose to make election days, days that the children would not attend school because the parents were uncomfortable with the idea of so many people coming into the school voting,” Brixie said.

Benson said one result of a taskforce of college students recommending how to increase voter turnout may be creating absentee ballot drop boxes on campuses where students could return absentee ballots without paying for postage.

Benson said her office is also attempting to identify ways to cover the cost of postage for every absentee ballot being returned, as the State of Washington does. “But we want to start by exploring ways to ensure college students are able to easily return their ballots without having to leave campus.”

For active service members, returning absentee ballots could be even easier: Benson said she wants to make it possible for them to vote electronically.

But Benson said she doesn’t foresee expanding that to the general population.

“I don’t think we can move to a scenario where people are electronically transmitting ballots as a norm,” Benson said. “It’s really meant as a–and many other states have done this–as an exception in scenarios where the return of a paper ballot simply is not possible.”

Despite this, Michigan voters do have one step in the voting process now available on the internet.

Benson’s office recently announced Michigan residents can now register to vote online.

“This fast, convenient, cost-effective and secure option to register to vote will enable many more people to participate in democracy, and help Michigan’s clerks maintain complete, accurate and up-to-date voter rolls,” Benson said.

Legislation to allow online voter registration was passed by the Michigan Legislature in 2018 and signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Snyder.

Michigan is the 38th state to allow citizens to register to vote online.

For East Lansing information on how to register, receive an absentee ballot or find a polling location.

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