On January 28th, 2020, former Secretary of State and current state Senator Ruth Johnson, who also chairs the Senate Elections Committee, introduced Senate Bills 756 and 757, legislation that would change the processing of Absent Voter (AV) Ballots in Michigan and how Absent Voter Counting Boards (AVCB) operate. Specifically, as introduced, the bills would allow for local (city or township) clerks with a population of greater than 40,000 to perform specified preprocessing of absentee ballots on the Monday before the election. This would not permit tabulation, just the opening of the envelope.
It is my belief that Senator Johnson introduced this legislation in response to concerns expressed by many election officials, as I originally wrote about HERE. In fact, Senator Johnson testified that she drafted the bills with input from the city clerks and other various groups to try to best appease all parties while ensuring the security of the state’s elections.
At a Senate Committee Hearing on the bills, Livonia City Clerk Susan Nash testified that the city processed 16,000 absentee ballots in 2016 and did not finish until 3:00 a.m. She further stated that she is expecting between 30,000 and 40,000 absent voter ballots this year.
Rochester Hills City Clerk Tina Barton correctly pointed out that numerous states allow clerks to run ballots through tabulators, without releasing any results, before Election Day, stating that “the ability to process ballots days before an election is not new in this country.”
Unfortunately, Senator Johnson is reluctant to allow for early feeding of the ballots, even though County Clerks can program the election tabulators to only permit tabulation after polls close and precinct/election workers could be sequestered to safeguard any information they were able to glean, during their service.
Senator VanderWall called the legislation a “knee-jerk reaction” to the expected increase of absent voter ballots. What he fails to realize is that many Michigan election officials have held at least three elections since the passage of Proposal 3 of 2018 and we have seen the need for legislation to account for the significant increase in absentee voting. In fact, this legislation cannot be enacted fast enough as election officials need resources and flexibility to administer our elections.
Senator McBroom asked what the rush to get unofficial results out to the public was. Simply put, the longer it takes to report unofficial results, the more likely voter confidence will dwindle.
Senator Johnson indicated that she would be open to amendments and I am hopeful that she takes a hard look at the following concerns:
- The bills requirements will force voters to seek out whether or not their community has enrolled in the early opening system if they need to spoil their ballot, which isn’t readily publicized. This will cause confusion and may preclude votes from being counted.
- The tabulator is the safest place for opened ballots to reside. County Clerks can program the tabulators to withhold results until election night and they are locked and secured, which ballots need to be.
- The population threshold is capricious and does not account for the fact that local clerks of small municipalities may not be able to recruit volunteers to help, and may need the extra day the most.
- The 40 day threshold is an arbitrary number and is unnecessary. It should be removed. Local clerks should be able to open them the day before if they want to with no limitations.
I look forward to substitute legislation being offered that addresses the above concerns and affords the timely release of unofficial election night results.