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Benson and clerks: No ballot changes within 75 days of elections

Bipartisan group asks Legislature for resolution 
to help clerks get ballots to voters on time 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and a bipartisan group of clerks today called on the state Legislature to pass a joint resolution promising that no new questions will be placed on ballots within 75 days of an election. The current deadline for the Legislature to add ballot questions is 60 days, leaving only 20 subsequent days for numerous processes to take place before the first absentee ballots must be mailed to voters. The 40-day deadline is part of the constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018.

“The deadlines leading up to elections make it extremely difficult for local, county and state election officials, along with vendors, to ensure that voters can receive absentee ballots in accordance with their constitutional rights,” said Benson. “Although the 60-day deadline and newly created 40-day deadline are both in the Michigan Constitution, the Legislature can take action now to support clerks by adopting a joint resolution promising to put questions on the ballot no later than the 75th day before an election.”

Under the current framework, the following tasks cannot be completed prior to 60 days before an election and must be completed by the 40th day before an election:

  • Counties finalize ballot language and format
  • Counties send ballots to state for review and approval
  • Counties send ballots to local jurisdictions and candidates for review
  • Finalized ballots are sent to printers
  • Ballots are printed
  • Ballots are distributed to all 83 counties in Michigan (or in some cases directly to local jurisdictions)
  • Counties deliver ballots to local jurisdictions (by 45th day under Michigan election law)
  • Local jurisdictions perform logic and accuracy testing with ballot tabulators to ensure ballots can be read in all tabulators (local jurisdictions often rely on vendor materials for testing, which must be delivered to jurisdictions)
  • Local jurisdictions ensure all military and overseas voters who have requested a ballot at least 45 days before they election are sent a ballot on the 45th day before the election.
  • Local jurisdictions stuff and mail all absentee ballots to all voters who have requested an AV ballot prior to day 40 (thousands of voters in many jurisdictions)

 Even without mistakes, and even if ballots are received by local jurisdictions on the 45th day before the election, there is little time to complete testing and mail all requested ballots by day 40. The Bureau of Elections will be working with clerks and vendors to identify additional time savings, but state and local election officials are seeking the ability to finalize ballot formats earlier as part of an improved process.

“The timeframe leaves no margin for error in design, review, proofing, printing or testing of ballots or tabulators,” said Michigan Elections Director Jonathan Brater. “This puts both local clerks and voters in an unfair position as any delays can make it practically or literally impossible for some clerks to meet that requirement.”

“The limited printing capacity in the state means that even if all counties submit ballots for printing on day 60, printers may not produce and deliver ballots in time for them to be distributed, tested and issued,” said Livingston County Clerk Elizabeth Hundley.

“The 60-day deadline is no longer workable in the modern era of election administration in Michigan, which requires clerks and vendors with limited staff and resources to carry out extensive testing and proofing so that all voters can get ballots and vote without issue,” said Oakland County Election Director Joe Rozell.

“Clerks are committed to serving their voters and they are shouldering this challenge as best they can ahead of the March primaries, but they need more support,” said Rochester Hills City Clerk Tina Barton. “A resolution from the Legislature would be of tremendous benefit ahead of the May and August races.”

“The Legislature can reduce this burden significantly by agreeing not to place questions on the ballot close to the 60-day deadline,” said Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope. “This would allow ballots at various stages of the process to be pre-proofed and pre-approved, allowing for more streamlined formatting, design, review, printing and delivery.”

Under Article XII, Section 1 of the Michigan Constitution, the Legislature may place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot up to the 60th day before the election. Article II, Section 4 of the Michigan Constitution requires that all voters be issued an absentee ballot immediately upon request at any time during the 40 days before an election.

After voters amended the state constitution in 2018 to allow all voters to vote by mail, there has been a surge in absentee ballot applications. Compared to approximately one month prior to the 2016 primary elections, the state has seen a 63 percent increase to more than 540,000 absentee ballot applications submitted.

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