By: Sara Krauss
Michigan Absentee Voting On the Rise
Michigan voters are voting via absentee ballot in increasingly high numbers. In the November 2016 election, approximately one-fourth of Michigan voters used an absentee ballot to case their votes. In the August 2016 primary election, that number was even higher in many counties. In Kent County, 43 percent of votes were cast via absentee ballots; in Grand Rapids, 40 percent of votes were absentee; in Ottawa County, roughly one-third of voters voted via an absentee ballot.
Absentee Voting Requirements in Michigan
Though absentee voting in Michigan is increasingly more common, Michigan requires voters to check off on their absentee application and ballot a reason they cannot vote in person at a polling station on Election Day. According to Michigan Election Law §168.758 and the Michigan Secretary of State, a voter registered in Michigan may only vote via absentee ballot if the voter is: (1) sixty years old or older; (2) unable to vote without assistance at the polls; (3) expecting to be out of town on election day; (4) in jail awaiting arraignment or trial; (5) unable to attend the polls due to religious reasons; or (6) appointed to work as an election inspector in a precinct outside of his or her precinct.
Proposed Legislative Changes and the Role of Political Parties
Many Michigan elected officials are advocating for the abolition of this requirement in order to encourage more absentee voting. Twenty-seven other states currently offer this “no-excuse” absentee voting. Bills proposing a Michigan “no-excuse” absentee voting rule have been introduced in the most recent session of Michigan state legislature, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has publicly declared his support of a “no-excuse” absentee voting rule. The “no-excuse” absentee voting initiative, however, was linked with a straight-ticket ballot bill in the Michigan state legislature that Republicans in the state legislature voted down. Though the “no-excuse” absentee voting bill was introduced by a Republican state representative and is supported by Republican Governor Snyder, Republican majority leaders in the state Senate oppose removing absentee voting restrictions.
Increased absentee voting may benefit a particular political party or give it an unfair advantage. It has been suggested that, since Democratic candidates typically receive more votes when voter turnout is higher, easing the absentee ballot request process may increase voter turnout and advantage Democratic candidates. However, prominent members of both the Democratic and Republican parties have come out in support of removing restrictions on absentee voting. Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, said that removing the restrictions on absentee voting would save time and increase voting integrity. Republican state representative Lisa Lyons, chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, said: “Providing voters with the ability to vote absentee without having to provide a reason isn’t pro-Republican. It’s not pro-Democrat. That’s pro-voter… It just makes good common sense.”
Increased Absentee Voting’s Effect on Efficiency
One proposed benefit to allowing Michigan voters to vote via an absentee ballot without listing a reason they cannot vote in person on Election Day is that increased absentee voting will increase election efficiency. If more Michigan voters vote absentee ahead of Election Day, poll lines will be shorter and voting and the counting of votes will be more organized and efficient. Kent County elections director Sue deSteiguer said: “We’re going to have 19-inch-long ballots. We’re going to have higher voter turnout. We’re worried that it’s going to take too long for the voters in the voting booth.” Some Michigan election clerks have proactively encouraged Michiganders to vote absentee. “Faced with the prospect of high voter turnout for the presidential election, and the likelihood that people may spend more time in the booth,” many clerks mailed notices to voters sixty and older to inform them that they could vote via absentee ballot. This notice resulted in a significant increase in the amount of voters on the absentee ballot list.
Though many elections clerks advocate for increased use of absentee voting in the name of election efficiency and administrability, the argument can also be made that absentee voting is itself often disorganized and full of errors. These issues will only be exacerbated if absentee voting becomes more prevalent. Gennessee County sent out misprinted ballots to absentee voters that were not able to be automatically read and counted by voting machines. The clerk then recalled the misprinted ballots and reprinted new absentee ballots to send out to voters, causing confusion amongst absentee voters who already voted and returned their misprinted absentee ballots and additional confusion over which ballots would count if absentee voters return both their misprinted and corrected absentee ballots. The taxpayers of Gennessee County will pay costs of reprinting and re-mailing the new absentee ballots, approximately $340,000. If absentee voting becomes more common, these issues and the confusion of absentee ballot errors may only become more pronounced.