Some clerks could get extra day to process ballots, but SOS says it’s not enough

Voting drop box in Meridian Township | Joe DiSano

The Michigan Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow some local clerks more time to process ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. 

Senate Bill 757, introduced by Republican former Secretary of State and current state Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), would give city or township clerks in larger communities the day before election day to begin counting absentee ballots. 

The city or township must have a population of at least 25,000 in order to qualify for pre-processing ballots.

However, this legislation does not allow for ballots to be counted before Election Day. It only allows the clerk to open voter ballot return envelopes, but the ballots must remain in the secrecy envelope until the day of the election. 

Current Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has warned that an influx of absentee ballots could mean that voters won’t know the winners in key races the night of Nov. 3 because clerks won’t be able to count all ballots in a day.

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Of the 2.5 million people who voted in the August primary election, more than 1.6 Michiganders voted absentee. For November, Benson’s office is predicting 3 million absentee ballots, with 2.1 million ballots already requested.

The legislation, which has been held up in committee since February, was passed through the Senate with a 34-2 vote. 

The two lone opponents were Sens. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and Lana Theis (R-Brighton).

Benson said the bill is a “step in the right direction,” but said it “does not go nearly far enough to provide the relief that clerks have been seeking for more than a year.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center recommends clerks have at least seven days to process absentee ballots before Election Day. This bill allows only 10 hours, only minimal processing, and includes a sunset provision that requires clerks to continue their advocacy in years to come,” Benson said. “Ultimately, it does a disservice to the 1,500 election officials who work tirelessly for their communities and our democracy, and doesn’t do enough to bring about more timely election results.”

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Michigan Election Clerks, a bipartisan group of county, city and township clerks, wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) asking them to pass legislation that would allow a seven day pre-processing period before Election Day. 

State Reps. Kara Hope (D-Holt) and Leslie Love (D-Detroit) have a four-bill package, HB 54475450, that would allow local clerks to process absentee ballots before Election Day. Those bills have not moved.

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. The voter law changes have caused an uptick of absentee voting, especially during the pandemic when people have been encouraged to stay home. 

“We worry that if the Legislature fails to lift its restrictions on local clerks, significant delays or other problems will ensue this November,” the group wrote.

SB 757 must now be passed by the House and then signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in order to become law. 

Allison Donahue
Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.