Column: We don’t need fear-mongering about mail-in voting. We need the Legislature to make it better.

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Calls from Republicans, starting with President Trump, are being made to slow down the progress toward voting by mail. Just a few days ago, those calls were echoed by state Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton) claiming, among other things, that this is not the time to change the way Michigan votes.

As the former vice chair of the House Committee on Redistricting and Elections, and the Ingham County clerk for the last eight years, I know that such rhetoric is dangerous because it undermines the hard work that election administrators do every day to ensure that we are prepared for upcoming elections.

Voting by mail, or absentee voting, is not a new concept here in Michigan, as it was permitted for voters with a qualified reason. In November 2018, the people of Michigan passed Proposal 3, which expanded absentee voting to all residents without having to provide a reason. Since the passage of that proposal, election administrators like me have been adjusting the way we prepare for elections.

Before the pandemic hit Michigan, the March 10 presidential primary election took place and absentee voting saw a marked increase. Election administrators adjusted well to the increased amount of mail-in ballots, results were reported in a timely fashion, and the election remained safe and secure. The feedback that my office received from voters was that they appreciated the choice to vote by mail.

Absentee ballot requests top 2016 primary total

The evening of that election also marked the first reported case of COVID-19 in Michigan. Since then, as cases have exploded, clerks from across the country have banded together to share best practices and implement new procedures to make sure that their elections are as safe and secure as possible, while limiting exposure to the virus for both poll workers and voters.

In Michigan, the May special election saw 99% of votes being cast by mail and turnout was the highest it has ever been for such an election. For the upcoming Aug. 4 primary election, we have seen two and a half times as many absentee ballots requested as there were for the August 2018 election and local clerks are preparing to handle that volume of ballots, when they arrive.

Bollin’s column mentions that Ohio was overwhelmed by mail-in ballots and Wisconsin’s April Primary had better turnout. What the representative fails to mention is that the city of Milwaukee had to consolidate from several hundred precincts to just a few dozen, leading to lines that were over a quarter of a mile and took hours to vote, disenfranchising voters in that community.

Given what we know about the absentee voting process, there are some things that the state Legislature, including Bollin, who sits on the Appropriations Subcommittee that provides funding for elections in Michigan, can do.

Benson, election chiefs push for mail-in voting amid COVID-19 crisis, but Trump opposes

The possible improvements that the Legislature still has time to make before the Nov. 3 presidential election include:

  • Provide additional funding for elections administration for local clerks. This would allow local clerks to hire additional election inspectors to tabulate absentee ballots, purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) for poll workers, and purchase the high-speed tabulators necessary to deliver timely results on election night.
  • Make the creation of a permanent absent voter ballot application lists mandatory. This would allow voters to sign up to receive a ballot application prior to every election. Most municipalities allow this already but it should be a practice that is across the board.
  • Require absent voter ballot applications to be mailed in a timely manner. Voters on the permanent absent voter ballot application list should be mailed an application no less than 60 days prior to the election so that there is enough time for the application to arrive to the voter and be returned, and the ballot be sent to the voter and returned.
  • Require ballot applications to be fulfilled immediately. Some local clerks hold ballot requests for days before mailing the ballots to residents. They should be required to send them out within one business day.
  • Require local clerks to have drop boxes. Most clerks have drop boxes for voted ballots, but the practice should be uniform across the state.
  • Allow ballots to be postmarked by Election Day. Voters should not be penalized because of delays caused by USPS. The government allows taxes to be filed timely if they are postmarked and there is no reason ballots cannot be handled the same way.
  • Allow limited pre-processing of absentee ballots. This would give local clerks the ability to prepare absentee ballots for tabulation before Election Day.

The one thing that I agree with Bollin on is that we indeed must support our local elections officials as they perform their duties. However, now is absolutely the time to pass legislation to help our clerk’s respond to a rapidly changing environment. Not passing this important legislation is neglectful of the Legislature’s responsibility to promote safety and security in our elections.

Barb Byrum
Barb Byrum (D) is Ingham County Clerk. As Clerk of one of the most populous counties in Michigan, Byrum has successfully conducted 25 elections, 5 union elections, and was one of only a handful of counties to complete the 2016 Presidential Recount. Since 2016, Byrum has been credentialed as a Certified Elections/Registration Administrator by Election Center, the only national program of continuing professional education that specializes in elections administration and voter registration. In 2017, she served on Election Center’s Security Task Force. Byrum previously served three terms as the Michigan State Representative. She graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agribusiness Management and holds a law degree from MSU College of Law.