The 2020 election may be in the rearview, but Michigan’s top election official and the state’s Republican-led legislature have only just begun discussing how to change the process for future cycles.
Last week, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson pitched a legislative agenda to “advance the will” of Michigan residents who backed increased access to absentee voting in 2018. She said the November election was the most successful and secure in history, noting she opposes efforts that would make it harder to vote in-person and absentee.
In the legislature, senators serving on the chamber’s Oversight Committee are in the midst of an ongoing probe into the state’s elections system, and the Michigan House Elections and Ethics Committee is starting to take up election-related reforms this week. Senate Oversight Committee Chair Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, has said his goal is to clear up confusion with the state’s election law and give people more confidence in the system’s integrity.
Many of the ideas that have been floated so far aren’t novel concepts, but after an election cycle where supporters of former President Donald Trump questioned Michigan’s election system while repeating unfounded claims of fraud and irregularities, negotiations about meaningful changes to the process could be more complicated.
Some of the main concepts being suggested to change Michigan election procedure so far include:
More time to process ballots
In the November 2020 election, 57% of total votes cast were absentee — about 3.2 million of the state’s 5,568,097 ballots — contributing to record-high voter turnout in Michigan.
Even before the pandemic hit, Michigan’s local clerks were expecting a big uptick in absentee ballots. The passage of 2018′s Proposal 3 opened the door to no-reason absentee voting for the first time, allowing any registered voter to drop off their ballot early or vote by mail.
Prior to the election, clerks asked for additional time to process those ballots. Ultimately, lawmakers approved a bill allowing election officials in communities with at least 25,000 residents to start processing absentee ballots a day early, but ballot-counting still went well into Wednesday in some of the state’s biggest cities.
Both Republicans and Democrats have since expressed openness to giving clerks more time to pre-process absentee ballots so the final results don’t take days to tally. Benson is pushing for two weeks, although it’s unclear if Republican lawmakers would agree to that timeframe.
Mailing absentee ballot applications
One of Benson’s most controversial decisions during the 2020 election cycle was to mail all registered voters in Michigan absentee ballot applications, citing COVID-19 concerns.
The move was heavily criticized by many Republicans, including former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. In her current role as Senate Elections Committee Chair, Johnson, R-Holly, called the preemptive mailings and the option allowing voters to request an application online into question.
Benson’s right to mail the absentee ballot applications was upheld in the Michigan Court of Claims, where Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens dismissed three consolidated lawsuits against Benson claiming she acted outside her powers when mailing the applications ahead of the August and November elections.
Benson is now advocating for that policy to become permanent, although it’s likely to be a tough sell in the legislature. She’d like to see absentee ballot applications mailed every two years during federal election cycles.
Counting late ballots if they’re postmarked on time
Benson also proposed allowing mailed-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted, even if they arrive late due to postal delays.
In September 2020, Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens issued a ruling allowing ballots delivered up to two weeks after the election to be tallied. An appeals court later reversed that ruling, requiring ballots arrive by 8 p.m. Election Day to be counted.
The issue was brought to the fore as voting rights advocates expressed concern some absentee ballots wouldn’t be counted because of delays at the U.S. Postal Service.
Johnson and former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land fought against letting late ballots be tallied in court, arguing that counting delayed ballots would violate the Constitution by taking the decision out of the hands of the U.S. Congress or state legislature.
Overhauling the Qualified Voter File
Shoring up Michigan’s list of eligible voters and modifying who has access to it is high on the list of potential election improvements for legislative Republicans.
Rep. Matt Hall — who led a series of oversight hearings in the aftermath of the 2020 election, including a hearing featuring Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani — recently suggested prohibiting third-party organizations from having digital access to the state’s online voter registration website or Qualified Voter File.
He’s also pitching a plan to require the Secretary of State to update and correct voter rolls and give county clerks the authority to remove dead people from the Qualified Voter File, and said the state should follow recommendations outlined in a 2019 audit of the Bureau of Elections.
In previous testimony to the legislature, county clerks have suggested giving them the authority to remove dead voters from the file would make it easier to keep the list up-to-date.
Beefing up punishments for absentee ballot fraud
Republican lawmakers have reintroduced legislation adding penalties for fraudulently submitting multiple absentee ballots or sending in an absentee ballot using another person’s information.
Proposals being considered in the House would have made 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.
Similar legislation was vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last session, who said the bills could “muddy the waters” and confuse voters about what’s actually illegal.
Requiring more training for election workers
Across the board, building additional training for people overseeing the state’s election process into state law seems to be a popular idea.
Benson included a call to mandate training standards for election challengers and election workers in her legislative agenda.
Both Hall and McBroom have also endorsed improving training standards, and Hall also called for additional standards for clerks, including implementing signature verification guidelines.
Letting overseas military and spouses vote electronically
Another reintroduced reform proposal from the last legislative session would let active-duty military serving overseas, as well as their spouses and voting-age dependents, cast absentee ballots electronically.
Currently, military voters serving overseas 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.
Last session’s legislation was supported by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and initially earned bipartisan support in both chambers. But changes made to the bill in the House raised security concerns from some Republicans, and the bill was never ordered enrolled in the Senate.
Senate Democrats moved to enroll the bill and send it to the governor, but the chamber ultimately voted along partisan lines to postpone reconsideration of the legislation, effectively killing it for the term.
Changes at the local level
Rep. Ann Bollin, the new House Elections and Ethics Committee chair, has reintroduced legislation from last session that would change how voting precincts are set.
Her legislation 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 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.
Another bill from Bollin 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.
Making Election Day a holiday
Benson supported making Election Day an official state holiday in her legislative agenda.
She’s previously encouraged companies to make the day a company holiday or allow employees to take paid leave to give them additional time to vote.
Banning open carry at the polls
Weeks before the November election, Benson issued a directive instructing local clerks to ban the open carry of guns at all polling places on Election Day.
A group of Michigan pro-gun organizations quickly sued to invalidate it, and the ban was struck down in the courts despite appeals from Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel.
Benson included an open carry ban at polling places in her legislative agenda. She’s previously said the idea is to protect voters from intimidation.
During court proceedings, gun rights groups argued the directive amounted to the “demonization” of gun owners by asserting the mere presence of a firearm is enough to intimidate a voter.