(TNS) — With seven weeks left until voters step into the ballot box — and even less time until voters can begin sending in absentee ballots — Michigan lawmakers are considering changes to the state’s election laws in anticipation of record absentee turnout.
On Tuesday, the Michigan Senate voted 34-2 to approve Senate Bill 757, legislation sponsored by Senate Elections Committee Chair Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, that would allow election officials in communities with at least 25,000 residents to start processing absentee ballots a day early.
It’s a step meant to help clerks handle an unprecedented number of voters choosing to cast absentee ballots in Michigan, although a number of clerks said Tuesday they hoped lawmakers will ultimately opt to give clerks even more time to pre-process absentee ballots so results don’t take days to tally.
But giving clerks more time to process ballots isn’t the only idea that’s emerged in the lead-up to Election Day. Below are some other proposals for changing Michigan’s election laws that legislators have taken up or could consider this fall.
Election Worker Shifts
The expected increase in absentee ballots cast has elections officials predicting that ballot counts could take much longer than usual — which would put an even bigger strain on election workers already used to working well into the night to finish tallying votes.
Senate Bill 756, also sponsored by Johnson, a former Secretary of State, would let absentee vote counters work in shifts, although all workers would still have to stay in the building until polls close. Absentee ballots could not be left unattended during a shift change.
To participate, local clerks would have to notify the Secretary of State’s office at least 20 days in advance in 2020, and 40 days in advance for subsequent elections.
The legislation passed the Senate and the House Elections and Ethics Committee, and is currently before the House Ways and Means Committee for further review.
Consolidating Absentee Counting Boards
Lawmakers have already legalized one option suggested by Michigan clerks after Proposal 3 of 2018 was signed into law — allowing local governments to consolidate their absentee counting boards for speedier processing.
While absentee ballots counted in precincts are typically tallied during lulls throughout the day or after polls close, workers in absentee counting boards are solely focused on processing absentee ballots throughout Election Day.
House Bill 5141, sponsored by Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, changed Michigan law to let neighboring communities set up shared absentee counting boards instead of requiring each municipality set up individual boards.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in June and is now Public Act 95 of 2020.
Felonies for False Absentee Voter Applications
The exponential increase in absentee voting has some lawmakers concerned people might try to submit false information via absentee ballot applications.
Senate Bills 977 and 978, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Daley, R-Attica, would make it a felony to knowingly send in an absentee voter ballot application with another person’s name and personal information, unless expressly authorized by law to do so. Submitting an absent voter ballot application with the intent to obtain multiple absentee ballots would also become a felony under the legislation.
Daley’s bills passed the Senate 31-6 and are currently in the second step of the House committee process. They were referred from the House Elections and Ethics Committee to the House Judiciary Committee last week.
Similar bills introduced in the House by Reps. Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet, and Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, passed the House Elections and Ethics Committee and are also before the House Judiciary Committee.
Expanding Options for Polling Places
A trio of bills from Bollin would allow for a series of changes to how voting precincts are set and allow for alternative polling place options.
House Bill 5031 would allow locations other than publicly owned buildings to be used as polling places if public buildings are not available for use or convenient. The bill would allow other buildings owned by tax-exempt organizations to be used as polling places, as well as certain privately owned areas such as conference centers or clubhouses.
House Bill 5032 would increase the maximum number of electors allowed in a precinct from 2,999 to 5,000, and allow precincts to be consolidated for any election except the November general election so long as it occurred before at least 60 days before an election and didn’t change the polling place for an election precinct. It would also require local clerks to maintain a permanent absent voter list.
House Bill 5123 would require cities and townships with two precincts and more than 6,000 electors to have an absent voter counting board for both precincts, and require an absent voting counting board for each precinct for cities and townships with more than three precincts.
All three bills cleared the first step of the House committee process and are before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Letting Active Duty Military Vote Electronically
Under federal law, states are required to provide electronic absentee ballots to active members of the military 45 days before an election. But because Michigan doesn’t allow electronic absentee ballots, military voters serving overseas currently have to print out their ballot and mail it back - an extra step that can be difficult for people serving in areas with little to no mail service.
Senate Bills 117 and 297, sponsored by Johnson and Sen. Paul Wojno, D-Warren, would allow electronic absentee ballot returns for military voters serving overseas. The voter would sign their absentee ballot with an electronic signature verified by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Both bills passed the Senate 36-1 in October 2019 and were reported out of the House Elections and Ethics Committee in March. They’re currently before the House Ways and Means Committee.
Ballot Dropbox and Ballot Rejection Requirements
House Bill 6199, sponsored by Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, would require clerks in each city or town to provide at least one secure ballot dropbox with outdoor access for voters. This would be another option for voters to submit their ballots, in addition to in-person voting and voting by mail.
Clerks would have to check and empty these drop boxes daily or assign an authorized assistant to do so. Only the clerk or assistant would have access.
Elder also submitted House Bill 6200, which would require local clerks to provide an explanation to voters if their ballots are rejected for any reason. The note would have to be sent within 30 days and must indicate that the vote was not counted and the reason why it was rejected.
These bills were referred to the Elections and Ethics Committee.
Verifying Voter Registration
A series of bills address the removal of inactive voters and ensuring clerks complete required training.
House Bill 6177, sponsored by Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, requires the Secretary of State to verify the birth date of registered voters with an unknown date of birth.
Using the same language as current law on canceling the voting registration of deceased adults, the bill requires the Secretary of State to send postage verifying birthdates by March 31, 2021. If the postage isn’t returned by 15 days before the next election, a voter’s registration would be canceled.
In addition, House Bill 6178, sponsored by Calley, would remove a voter’s registration if they do not vote by the following two November general elections. If the bill is passed before this November, that would mean a failure to verify birthdate, address or vote by November 2021 would cancel a voter’s registration.
This is based on an Auditor General report that identified 230 registered electors older than 122 years, or the “oldest officially documented person to ever live” according to legislative analysis by the House Fiscal Agency.
The Secretary of State would also have to notify local clerks of this person’s canceled registration. In House Bill 6179, sponsored by Rep. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township, the office would also have to post the name of each local clerk who hasn’t conducted required election education training by July 1 of odd-numbered years.
The Auditor General found that election officials had not completed the required training to obtain or retain accreditation in 14 percent of counties, 14 percent of cities and 23 percent of townships. The training involves, but is not limited to, understanding the absentee voting process and absent voter counting boards.
These bills were referred to the Elections and Ethics Committee.
Holidays and Time Off for Election Day
House Bill 5451, sponsored by Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw, would make regular election days in May, August and November state holidays.
Another bill from Guerra, House Bill 6000, would allow workers to take paid leave during their shifts to go vote if they don’t have the day off.
Both bills remain before the House Elections and Ethics Committee.
Changing May Tlections to March and August Elections to June
Senate Bills 1082 and 1083, sponsored by Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, and Wojno, propose shifting the months for Michigan elections.
Nesbitt’s bill would change the state’s May elections to March and August primaries to June. Wojno’s bill would formalize these date changes for county board elections.
These bills were referred to the Senate Elections Committee.
More Time to Count Absentee Ballots
Amid concerns over handling an influx of absentee ballots ahead of time and fears that many ballots won’t be counted if they’re held up in the mail, a handful of bills introduced by Democrats would give absent voter counting boards additional time to tally absentee ballots — both before and after Election Day.
House Bill 5435, sponsored by Guerra, would let absent voter counting boards begin tabulating votes a week prior to Election Day.
House Bill 5987, also sponsored by Guerra, would allow clerks to count absentee ballots received within 48 hours of polls closing so long as they were postmarked by Election Day. Another bill sponsored by Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, House Bill 5807, would go even further, allowing clerks to count ballots postmarked by Election Day for six days after the election.
All three bills were referred to the House Elections and Ethics Committee and remain there.
Michigan voters can now take pictures of their ballots in the voting booth and share it publicly after they’re more than 100 feet away from a polling place without fear of spoiling it under a 2019 settlement, but the Secretary of State contends pictures of a ballot with a person’s face in it are still not permitted.
Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, sponsored House Bill 4196 to write ballot photography rights into state law, and sponsored a similar bill last session. He disagrees with the Secretary of State’s assessment and said he believes voters have the constitutional right to take photos of their ballots, however they choose.
Johnson’s bill is intended to apply to in-person and absentee voters alike.
The bill got a hearing in the House Elections and Ethics Committee in January and remains before that committee.
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