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Michigan Makes Positive Election Law Changes

The Michigan legislature recently passed two bipartisan election laws and sent them to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) for her signature. Election officials initiated these election year changes due to concern about processing an expected high volume of mail ballots in November because of COVID-19.

While Michigan voters expanded mail ballot options to all voters by referendum in 2018, the state legislature did not make corresponding upstream and downstream policy changes to the election ecosystem that would facilitate a quicker, more efficient count. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Elections made several recommendations in January 2020 that align, in part, with those adopted in Michigan on September 24.

The bill package offers enhanced security for mail ballots, more processing time, correction of common voter errors, and better access for overseas military personnel and their spouses.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) and municipal election officials sought a seven-day pre-processing period based on BPC’s recommendation to enable an orderly processing of mail ballots before Election Day. State Sen. Ruth Johnson (R), a former Michigan secretary of state, sponsored the bill providing for 10 hours of pre-processing on the Monday prior to Election Day. The time allows for opening and verifying ballots and stops short of allowing administrators to run the ballots through a tabulator. This legislation is a major accomplishment for the legislature and was something the Michigan House and Senate leadership had opposed previously.

The two bills include:

  • Pre-processing of mail ballots, including removing the ballots from the return envelope and verifying the ballot number, the day before Election Day. The processing steps on the day prior will enable tabulation to begin shortly after 7 a.m. on Election Day. While BPC’s task force recommends at least 7 days to pre-process ballots before Election Day, yesterday’s compromise will greatly reduce the chance of administrators needing additional time after Election Day to complete the processing and counting of mail ballots. This legislative change applies only to the November 3 General Election.
  • This bill clarifies the allowance of worker shifts and that the same staff is not required to continue working until all ballots are processed and tabulated.
  • Standards for drop box security, which include security cameras and ensuring the boxes are constructed to deter tampering. The expansion of drop boxes as an option to return mail ballots and increasing security coincides with BPC’s Task Force on Elections recommendations.
  • A 48-hour curing process that requires election administrators to contact voters if their mail ballot return envelopes are not signed or their signatures do not match the signatures on the voter file. BPC recommends a sufficient period for voters to correct any errors on their ballots in order for them to be counted.
  • Permitting active duty military personnel and their spouses stationed overseas to electronically submit their ballots.

This election year has been tumultuous. There were many reasons to worry that the election administrators in Michigan, a tightly-contested presidential battleground, would be forced to use outdated policies and procedures to count the vote, resulting in long delays in results reporting. Instead, the Michigan legislature has set an example of how bipartisan solutions can lead to more effective solutions in election administration.

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