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Clerks: More money, new election laws needed to implement early voting in 2024

Lansing — The voting rights group that helped to pass a November ballot initiative to secure nine days of early voting in Michigan's constitution is asking the Legislature to act quickly to adopt legislation making implementation of the plan possible.

For Proposal 2 to be fully implemented, local clerks need more funding; clearer rules on how early tabulated ballots are to be handled; longer canvassing periods; improvements to the qualified voter file and earlier primaries, clerks said Tuesday at an event with lawmakers hosted by Promote the Vote, the group that successfully advocated for the passage of Proposal 2.

"The number one concern is that it's January of '24 and we're adopting rules for early voting," said Harrison Township Clerk Adam Wit, who serves as president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

Concerns over the speedy and thorough implementation of Proposal 2 is "taking up the bandwidth" among clerks and demands action from lawmakers, he said.

Proposal 2, which passed with 60% support in November, included a host of voting law changes and cemented other long-debated voter ID laws in the state constitution when it was passed in November. But the largest change, and one that will require some legal framework to implement, was the requirement of nine days of early voting ahead of statewide elections.

The Democratic-led Legislature seems open to implementing some of the requested changes.

"I just want the clerks to know they're going to be supported by me in all of their requests for how to make Proposal 2 work, not only for the larger communities but for the smaller townships and clerks around the state," said Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou, the East Lansing Democrat who chairs the House Elections Committee.

Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, said she's in favor of many of the changes advanced Tuesday, particularly those related to better information in the state's voter roll and increased funding for clerks. Other ideas she felt needed more time and discussion.

"I think we should give it some time to implement the early voting measure but precinct-based," said Bollin, who chaired the House Elections and Ethics Committee last session. "This is not something that's going to be done overnight. We're likely going to have to come back and have more statutory changes. I also think they should be done by legislation and not the rules process."

Michigan's next statewide election, the presidential primary, will occur in early 2024, but individual communities could choose to implement early voting in elections over the next several months to "kick the tires" on the new law before the system is put to the test in the presidential primary.

More: Clock ticks on bills to move Michigan's presidential primary

Additionally, nine days of early voting is the minimum number of days for a statewide election, meaning individual municipalities could provide more than those nine days of early voting.

But implementation of those early voting days will likely require the passage of state laws directing clerks on election schedules, early voter ballot handling, and how to keep tabs on early voters.

For example, Lansing Clerk Chris Swope noted Tuesday that voting locations download a static copy of precinct voters onto an ePollbook to use on Election Day to verify a voter's eligibility and mark off that person as having cast a ballot. If two early voting centers are handling multiple overlapping precincts, an individual could come in once to each voting center and vote without the other voting center's ePollbook showing they'd voted elsewhere until after polls close and the records are compared.

A solution would be for those early vote locations to share real-time data, Swope said, but state law prohibiting an ePollbook's connection to the internet would likely prevent that. Even if that law didn't exist, some polling locations wouldn't have broadband access necessary to share the data.

If someone votes an early ballot that's tabulated and then dies before the election, is that ballot counted? Swope asked. How do you recall a ballot that can't be tracked back to the dead voter?

The state's policy regarding absentee ballots would require a local clerk to exclude the ballot of someone who died between when they cast their ballot and Election Day. But a tabulated ballot can't be recalled.

"If we have nine days of voting, once that ballot goes in the tabulator, it's in the tabulator, it's not identifiable to that voter," Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said.

Proposal 2's allowance for late military ballots also raises concerns about the timing of primaries and canvassing.

Under the proposal, overseas military ballots can be counted if they're postmarked by Election Day and received within six days after Election Day.

The six-day window will give clerks some pause as they decide whether to delay their canvassing process, which they only have 14 days post-election to complete, Byrum said.

"Something that needs to be identified immediately is how long counties have to canvass and certify the election," Byrum said. "Right now, it's two weeks. One of our largest counties has difficulty meeting the two weeks and that was before we finally afforded military overseas voters through Proposal 2 the option to at least have their ballot postmarked and gotten to their clerk to be counted."

Additionally, the 6-day allowance for military ballots and nine days of early voting shortens the window between the August primary and November election for clerks to finalize ballots and for candidates to campaign.

The GOP-led state Legislature in the last session was working on legislation that would move the August primary to May or June to give candidates more time to campaign and clerks more time to cement their ballots. Swope urged further consideration of that measure.

"There is not enough time between the August primary and the November general election anymore under our current circumstances," Swope said.

Both Byrum and Swope said there needed to be better guidance about how ballots tabulated in the 9-day timeframe are handled after being fed through the tabulator. And if an early voting center combines multiple precincts, clerks need direction on how to separate those ballots out by precincts so they're recoverable in the event of a specific recount or audit.

Lastly, in order to hire the staff, secure polling locations and purchase extra equipment for early voting, clerks across the state will need sizeable increases in funding, the panel said Tuesday.

"Election administration was deemed critical infrastructure many years ago," Byrum said. "You would not know that based on the funding that we have not received and the respect that election administrators have not received."

Tuesday's panel also floated changes outside those needed to implement Proposal 2, such as early tabulation of absentee ballots, improvements to the qualified voter file, changes to permanent absentee voter rules, larger precincts and a "no wrong door approach" that allows voters to still vote through a specialized portal if they show up at the wrong precinct.

Landon Myers, the Michigan coordinator of the Campus Vote Project, also raised concerns about what early voting opportunities would mean for college students who have taken advantage of same-day registration over the past four years.

He noted that Michigan's 2024 presidential primary, if moved to the last Tuesday in February, would likely fall during spring break for students at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

"Early voting is going to be really critical," Myres said. "If early voting is going to be successful at college campuses, voter registration at early voting sites, we're going to have to talk about that, we're going to have to make sure that's able to happen. Because those college kids are not going to be registered ahead of time."