Whitmer signs law to ease burden of absentee ballot count

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Twenty-eight days from Election Day, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law legislation meant to ease the burden of counting a likely historic number of absentee ballots.

One part of the measure allows local clerks in some areas to start preparing absentee ballots for counting for 10 hours the day before Election Day. Ballots still may not be tabulated until 7 a.m. on Election Day. The bill also allows for a second shift for absentee vote counting boards.

Another part instructs clerks to reach out to voters about problems with absentee ballot signatures. If a ballot is missing a signature or the signature does not match election records, it will be rejected. Under the new law, clerks must tell the voter when that happens and give them a chance to fix the problem.

“Giving voters the chance to solve problems with their absentee ballot is essential and critical to ensuring that every voter can exercise their constitutional right to vote absentee and to make sure that their vote counts,” Whitmer said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference before signing the bill.

While Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Democrats, both praised the Republican-led Legislature for passing the bill, they said more time is needed to prepare absentee ballots for counting.

“This legislation today is a step in the right direction. It does not go far enough,” Benson said at the Tuesday press conference, adding that some other states offer weeks of preparation time.

She said her office is working to speed up the count by providing more high-speed ballot tabulators, automatic envelope openers and other tools, as well as recruited some 26,000 new election workers. Still, she said it could be the Friday after Election Day before every single vote is counted.

“What is also important for all of us is that as those ballots are tabulated … that that process is methodical, it’s secure and when it’s done, the results are accurate,” Benson said.

Whitmer said she was also supposed to be signing Senate Bill 117, which was passed by the Legislature, but that, “for some reason,” it had not yet been sent to her desk. That measure allows members of the military and their spouses to submit their absentee ballots electronically.

Statewide, there are expected to be in excess of 2 million votes cast absentee in the general election. Benson said that some 2.7 million voters had requested absentee ballots, 2.6 million had been sent out and nearly 400,000 ballots had already been submitted as of Tuesday.

If all of the ballots requested are returned, it would smash the previous state record of about 1.6 million set during the August primary. In the November 2016, 1.3 million votes were cast absentee.

“We are on track for record-breaking turnout in our state this fall, where I anticipate more citizens, more voters, will cast ballots than ever before in our state’s history. And that’s truly remarkable, in the midst of this global pandemic, that citizens want to vote and they’ve been demonstrating that at every election we’ve had this year, each of which has broken records … (and) each of which has demonstrated also that our system of running elections here in Michigan is safe and secure,” Benson said.

The Kalamazoo City clerk said he had issued 17,674 absentee ballots as of Tuesday and gotten 5,782 back.

During her own press conference Tuesday morning, Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons said that in Kent County, 173,302 absentee ballots have been requested and 39,772 of those had been returned as of Tuesday morning. In November 2016, a total of 68,967 absentee ballots were returned.

Lyons warned that the large number of absentee ballots is going to mean a slower counting process. Though many local clerks can start preparing those ballots for counting a day early, they still won’t be actually tabulated until Election Day.

She previously expected a slow count in August but said every vote was tabulated by 5:30 a.m. the day after the election, which she counted as a success. She said it will probably take at least that long in November.

“We’re going to take all the time that we need to count ballots securely and accurately,” Lyons said. “We will not sacrifice accuracy and security for speed.”

She also announced the new Kent County Votes outreach program, which aims to make sure everyone knows their voting options amid the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Kent County Votes and KentCountyVotes.com offers Kent County voters new resources to find the information and answer the questions they’ll need to vote safely and securely up to and including Nov. 3,” Lyons said during a virtual meeting.

She explained the education initiative includes radio and digital ads, as well as tele-town halls with election officials, including her. The recently redesigned county election website, KentCountyVotes.com, includes information on how to track your absentee ballot and a list of absentee ballot drop box locations.

The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office also has a voter education program. You’ll see ads online, on TV and on the backs of ATM receipts. You may also find absentee ballot applications in newspapers and you can seek one out at your local Kroger.

In a statement, Benson reminded voters to turn to trusted nonpartisan sources for information about the election, like their local clerk’s office, rather than partisan mailers.

Battleground Michigan is considered a key win in the path to the White House, and both candidates have been giving it plenty of attention. President Donald Trump won the state in 2016 — the first Republican to do so in decades — but it was a narrow victory and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would like to turn it blue again this time. Biden has been leading in the polls here, but not by so much as to discount Trump coming from behind to win.

Michigan voters are also deciding on two ballot proposals and voting for state Supreme Court justices. Various ballots will also have other judicial postings, sheriff and prosecutor races, and state House races.