GOP leader nixes bill to process influx of absentee ballots

Published: Feb. 19, 2020 at 1:14 PM EST
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A top Republican lawmaker on Wednesday came out in opposition to legislation that would ease Michigan election clerks’ ability to process an expected influx of absentee ballots, saying it would set a “dangerous precedent.”

Local officials want legislators to let them start opening return envelopes for absentee ballots the day before Election Day. The actual ballots would still stay inside secrecy envelopes until counting on Election Day.

As of last week, the number of absentee ballot applications was up by more than 60% for the March 10 presidential primary compared to 2016 following voters’ passage of a 2018 ballot initiative that allows people to vote absentee for any reason, according to Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office. While the bill was not expected to be approved in time for that contest, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s stance makes it unlikely that the proposed change will be enacted before the November presidential election.

Shirkey said he understands clerks’ concerns, but he wants to see how the current process works.

“I don’t necessarily think we should be trying to solve a problem before it actually occurs, number one,” he told reporters. “And number two, what’s being proposed in terms of them setting them up by partially opening, I believe that’s the nose of the camel underneath the tent toward early voting, early counting — which I’m very opposed to. ... If I had to choose between early voting, early counting versus late reporting, I’ll take late reporting all day long.”

When asked if he will sign off on the legislation, which cleared the GOP-led Senate Elections Committee on a 5-0 vote last week, Shirkey said: “I think it’s a dangerous precedent.” The bill and another one, which would let clerks have a subsequent shift of workers in absentee voter counting boards as long as no one leaves until after the polls have closed, are sponsored by Republican Sen. Ruth Johnson, a former secretary of state.

The measures would apply to cities or townships with at least 10,000 registered voters.

Absentee ballots accounted for 18%, or 462,000, of the 2.5 million votes cast in Michigan’s 2016 primaries won by now-President Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and more than a quarter, or 1.1 million, of the votes in the 2018 gubernatorial election. In local elections held on three days in 2019 — after the no-excuse option took effect — the percentage of the overall vote share from absentee voting rose by between 4 and 15 points from 2017.

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