Bills advancing in the legislature will align state law with a recent constitutional amendment to expand voting rights, and lawmakers say they’ll create a “historic new era of voter access” in Michigan.
LANSING—More than 2.5 million Michiganders said they wanted easier access to the polling booth when they voted to pass Proposal 2 in November with about 60% of the statewide vote.
The initiative, otherwise known as “Promote the Vote,” locked certain voting rights into the state Constitution—all of which are centered around reducing barriers to the ballot, and ultimately making it simpler for Michiganders to make their voices heard both before and on Election Day.
And this week, lawmakers in the state Senate followed up on the will of the voters with their first committee hearing on a series of new bills designed to expand both voting access and integrity.
Moss is the lead sponsor of the eight-bill package and the chairman of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, where the legislation was the subject of a three-hour hearing on Thursday. The bills are expected to advance to a committee and full Senate vote in the coming weeks.
“We are writing an historic new chapter for voting in the state of Michigan and taking significant action to protect, uphold, and expand voting rights,” state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said. “Despite those who push contrived chaos, Michiganders overwhelmingly want to reduce barriers to their ballots and increase access to voting, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Here’s a quick overview of where each one stands, and what they aim to accomplish:
Proposal 2 amended the state Constitution to ensure all Michigan voters won’t have to wait until Election Day to cast their ballot. Specifically, the constitution now calls for at least nine days of early in-person voting, for at least eight hours a day, starting on the second Saturday and ending on the Sunday before every statewide and federal election. Senate Bill 367 would make it law.
“Voters deserve more choices to vote in person than to attempt to squeeze in the time during a work day on a Tuesday to go to a polling site and potentially face long lines,” Moss said.
Under the bill, all counties and townships in Michigan would be required to make detailed plans, and implement at least nine days of early voting— beginning with next year’s Presidential Primary Election in February. But every county and township won’t need to open every precinct.
Instead, different municipalities across Michigan (like two townships or a county and township) could partner to create a single early voting location, just as long as every voter in every county is afforded an opportunity to vote early for at least nine days before the election, Moss said.
“We recognize that we are a diverse state with diverse communities requiring flexible choices,” he said, noting that some smaller townships would struggle to afford their own voting sites.
The legislation also sets nine days as the minimum; not the cap. Under the bill, election clerks could choose to operate early voting centers even earlier, up to 29 days before an election.
“There’s no one-size-fits all option because that would not have worked for Michigan,” said Erica Peresman, senior advisor at Promote the Vote, the organization that crafted Proposal 2. “Rather, each municipality will have the ability to choose how they conduct their early voting.”
The bill would also water down an existing state requirement that the polling locations be housed inside municipal buildings like schools or police stations. Instead, clerks would be able to lease private space—just as long as it’s not owned by an elected official or candidate.
The legislation also prohibits anyone from intentionally disclosing the results from the early voting locations before 8 p.m. on Election Day. Senate Bill 368 would make it a felony to release any election results before then, and it sets the maximum penalty at up to five years in prison.
Automatic Absentee Ballots
Proposal 2 allows Michiganders to automatically receive an absentee ballot for every future election without having to apply for a new ballot for each election cycle.
Senate Bill 369 would formally codify that procedure into state law—officially enabling voters to submit one absentee ballot application to receive absentee ballots for all future elections.
Peresman said the changes will fulfill a clear mandate in the newly amended state Constitution, as well as offer a new convenience to voters who are increasingly choosing to vote via mail.
Last year, Michigan set a record for the highest voter turnout in state history, with more than 4.3 million Michiganders casting ballots, and about 1.8 million doing so by absentee ballot. Enabling more convenient access to future absentee ballots will keep the trend going, Peresman said.
“This is a grand new step to having the most accessible, convenient, efficient, and voter-focused elections system in the country,” she told lawmakers on Thursday, noting that a single ballot application will also save time for clerks and eliminate the need for “repetitive paperwork.”
Under the legislation, the continuous flow of absentee ballots to voters would only be rescinded upon request, or if the recipient is no longer eligible to vote or hasn’t voted in six consecutive years. Clerks can also rescind ballots if they suspect the voter has moved to another state.
Other Election Changes
Local election clerks—as well as Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson—spoke Thursday about the importance of the pending reforms and the impact they’ll have on elections starting in 2024.
“Michigan citizens turned out in record numbers and voted in a bipartisan manner to amend our state constitution and expand our election laws and every citizen’s voting rights,” Benson said. “The bills discussed today carry out the will of the voters while providing the flexibility needed by clerks in counties, cities and townships of all sizes and geographies across the state.”
Senate Bill 372 would require every city or township to install at least one absentee ballot drop box per 15,000 registered voters. Officials estimate that the change will involve at least 1,800 new drop boxes being installed across Michigan, at a total cost of at least $14.3 million.
Senate Bill 373 would allow voters to use additional forms of photo identification besides their passports or driver’s license to verify their identity at the polls—including out-of-state driver’s licenses, state, local and tribal government identification cards, and student IDs. Those without photo identification will still have the right to vote after signing an affidavit to verify their identity.
Senate Bill 374 would allow election clerks to operate fewer polling locations on Election Day—changing the requirement for one polling location for every 2,999 voters to 5,000. Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said the shift could help offset the new costs of early voting by allowing clerks to consolidate precincts that don’t typically attract large crowds of voters on Election Day.
Senate Bill 259—which was signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month—also aligns with the new constitutional requirements set out in Proposal 2. It allows absentee ballots from military members (and their spouses and voting-age dependents) to still be counted as long as they are signed and dated by Election Day, and received by a local clerk up to six days after the election.
Senate Bill 339—which passed the Senate this week—also requires the Secretary of State’s office to roll out an online tracking system that allows voters to track the status of their ballots.
In Related News…
The House Election Committee also approved new legislation this week that would enter Michigan into a formal agreement with 15 other states and the District of Columbia to change the way presidential votes are tallied on Election Day. Under the bill, Michigan’s 21 electoral college votes would be allocated to whichever candidate wins the nationwide, rather than the statewide, popular vote.
Similar legislation has also been introduced in the state Senate.
If enough states to add up to at least 270 electoral college votes end up joining the deal, the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide would be guaranteed enough electoral college votes to become president. The concept is called National Popular Vote, and at least 11 other states are considering the change ahead of next year’s presidential election.
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