Absentee ballot drop box | City of Grand Rapids photo

A bill allowing some election clerks extra time to get absentee ballots ready for counting in the Nov. 3 general election is heading to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

House lawmakers voted Thursday 94-11 to pass Senate Bill 757, which lets election clerks in cities or townships with more than 25,000 residents to start pre-processing absentee ballots between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Nov. 2. Clerks are required to give written notice to the Michigan Secretary of State (SOS) at least 20 days ahead of the election if they choose to do so. 

The action came on the first day of early voting in Michigan. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has expressed strong support for voting by mail, calling it a safe alternative to in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A record 2.39 million absentee ballots have been requested by voters so far, the SOS said this week. Information can be found at Michigan.gov/Vote

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“Michigan has already held three successful elections this year, and we are on track to see more success and record-breaking turnout in the general election,” said Benson. “Voters can safely and securely vote absentee from home, early at their local clerk’s office, or at their polling place on Election Day.”

The bill — which is sponsored by former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, now a GOP state senator from Holly — went back to the state Senate. Lawmakers voted 35-2 to adopt a House change that requires clerks to contact voters if their signature on an absentee ballot doesn’t match their signature in the state’s Qualified Voter List. 

Legislation now heads to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk for her signature. It applies only to the upcoming Nov. 3 general election.

Democrats’ attempts to make two amendments to the bill failed. One amendment would have allowed clerks two days of pre-processing time. The other would have removed a requirement that only clerks in communities with more than 25,000 people can pre-process absentee ballots.

Michigan can’t count absentee ballots until Election Day. A local clerk wants Whitmer to change that.

For months, clerks have been asking lawmakers in the state to pass the aforementioned bills because they anticipate a surge in absentee ballots in the upcoming election. A House Democratic package that would make broader reforms to help clerks has not moved.

Nancy Wang, executive director of the government reform group Voters Not Politicians, called the Legislature’s action “a good first step, but the work isn’t over.”

“With only 40 days to go until election day, now is not the time for our Legislature to slow down on reforms to ensure our elections run smoothly in November,” she said. “… Additional common sense bills like HB 5991, which sets forth a clear signature verification process, are needed to protect voters and empower clerks.”

Senate Bill 117, a bill that allows military voters to electronically return absentee ballots, also passed the state House with a 88-17 vote. 

C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She is a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University.