Updated, 1:31 p.m., 9/11/20, with comments from Gov. Whitmer’s office
Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum this week sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, asking the former to issue executive orders that would speed up ballot processing for the Nov. 3 general election.
Byrum requested on Tuesday that Whitmer sign an order allowing city and township clerks to process absentee ballots 24 to 48 hours ahead of Election Day to help alleviate the backlog so that the public will know election results sooner.
Currently, valid absentee ballots received by clerks before Election Day are held and then sent to absent voter counting boards for processing after polls open.
A record 2.1 million absentee ballots already have been requested ahead of the general election. The secretary of state’s office expects absentee ballot requests for the Nov. 3 election to double the 2.6 million requests made ahead of the Aug. 4 state primary election.
“The measures that I am asking the governor to issue executive orders on would allow for the process to be more efficient,” said Byrum, a Democratic former state representative.
Bipartisan legislation, Senate Bill 757, which would allow some Michigan clerks to pre-process mail-in ballots is currently sitting in the state Senate, but has yet to be passed. That proposal, which is sponsored by Republican former Secretary of State and current state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), has been on hold since May.
State Reps. Kara Hope (D-Holt) and Leslie Love (D-Detroit) have legislation pending in the state House. They have previously asked for immediate hearings on a four-bill package, HB 5447–5450, that would allow local clerks to process absentee ballots before Election Day.
The bills were referred to the state House Appropriations and Elections and Ethics Committees in February. Since then, no action has been taken.
Byrum also requested proxy voting for voters in the military or stationed overseas because she anticipates mail delivery delays within the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). A proxy vote is a ballot cast by one person or firm on behalf of another.
Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said the governor is “reviewing all options” to ensure the election is correctly executed.
“As Gov. Whitmer and Secretary Benson have said, allowing clerks to process, but not count, ballots before Election Day is a simple way to deliver faster, more reliable results,” Brown said in a statement. “Similar bills have already been enacted in more than 18 other states – and there are multiple bills pending in our state legislature.”
Brown pointed to one of them, SB 757, which unanimously passed the Senate Elections Committee in February but has not been advanced by the Legislature.
“Gov.Whitmer and Secretary Benson hope our state legislature will do its part to make this possible, and believe Michigan voters should demand no less from their government,” Brown said.
Byrum wrote in her letter that allowing local clerks to process ballots early will speed up getting through a large wave of absentee ballots that clerks are expecting as more people choose to vote by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pre-processing wouldn’t include tabulating, or counting, those ballots before Election Day — just preparing them to be counted, Byrum said.
Proposal 3, passed by Michigan voters in 2018, added several voting policies to the Michigan Constitution, including same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting. Benson has pointed to the passage of the initiative as reason to send absentee ballot applications to Michigan’s 7.7 million registered voters during the pandemic, saying they’re an option for voters who are wary of voting in-person because of COVID-19 health risks.
Michigan Secretary of State spokesperson Jake Rollow said it’s best to talk to the governor about issuance of executive orders.
“What I can tell you is that Secretary Benson has been calling on the Legislature to act in support of election clerks and voters for over a year,” Rollow said in an email to the Advance.
Whitmer and Benson recently renewed these calls in a Sunday op-ed for the Detroit Free Press. In it, they used the state primary election as an example of why bills need to be passed to enable speedier absentee ballot processing.
“Without this ability in August, the results in four of our largest counties did not come in until the following afternoon, and many election workers were forced to work more than 20 hours straight, greatly increasing the chance they’d make errors,” the two leaders wrote.
More than 25% of eligible Michigan voters participated in the state’s May elections. About 99% cast absentee ballots, with only 1,775 people voting in person — which Benson said was a record.
More than 2.5 million people voted in Michigan in the Aug. 4 statewide primary election, with 1.6 million casting absentee ballots — breaking records set in 2018.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that presses for solutions across party lines, recommends that clerks are given at least seven days before election day to process absentee ballots, Rollow added.
“Meanwhile our Legislature can’t muster the will to pass a bill that would allow clerks just one day,” Rollow said. “It’s inexcusable.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said Wednesday the state Senate continues to fine-tune the proposal. In recent months, Republicans have held a series of legislative hearings on concerns about mail-in ballots and voter fraud, echoing President Donald Trump’s concerns, despite the fact that there have been very rare cases of fraud in Michigan and nationwide.
Byrum said that’s not enough action.
“The Legislature has failed to act to make the necessary changes to allow our clerks the flexibility that they so desperately need,” Byrum said. “Absent any kind of action or leadership from them, we need Governor Whitmer to step in and assist, to allow our local elections administrators to pre-process ballots. If unofficial election results do not come out on election night, I worry about the public losing faith in our democratic system.”
Byrum also asked for proxy voting to be approved for voters in the military and for those stationed overseas because mail service could be hindered by the pandemic.
“There are dozens of countries where mail simply will not be delivered or distributed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Byrum said. “These are members of our armed services, their families and others who are guaranteed the right to vote like any other U.S. citizen. We need to make accommodations for them to be able to vote safely and ensure that their voice is heard.”