Michigan passed another proposal expanding voting rights in 2022. What comes next?

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum talks about Proposal 2 in Lansing, Jan. 24, 2023 | Ward Beard

By Jon King, Michigan Advance

While voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment expanding voting rights in November, the work to put Proposal 2 in place is only just getting started.

“Actual implementation is just now starting to be discussed, which is quite frankly concerning because time is not on our side,” said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, one of the participants at a panel discussion Tuesday in Lansing hosted by Promote the Vote, the statewide voting rights coalition that advocated for passage of Proposal 2.

Micheal Davis Jr., Promote the Vote’s executive director, says the coalition is now focused on the amendment’s implementation.

“PTV is starting 2023 off strong by bringing voting rights advocates, election officials, and members of the new legislature together to discuss important priorities related to access to democracy in Michigan,” said Davis in a welcome letter for Tuesday’s gathering. “We look forward to working closely with the legislature and state and local election officials, as well as the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state, to ensure Michigan has a voting system that works for all of us.”

Byrum told the Michigan Advance that the gathering was an opportunity for election officials to talk with legislators and their staffers about the necessary changes needed for implementation.

“This is a very exciting opportunity to increase access to the ballot box for voters, and part of that opportunity is going to require changes,” said Byrum. 

Also taking part in the discussion was Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope and Harrison Township Clerk Adam Wit, along with Sharon Dolente, a senior advisor to Promote the Vote who was previously a voting rights strategist for the ACLU, and Noah Praetz, an election law professor at DePaul University who is also the co-founder of The Elections Group consulting firm.

Among the changes the proposal has written into the Michigan Constitution are:

  • A mandatory nine days of early in-person voting
  • State-funded absentee-ballot drop boxes and postage for absentee applications and ballots
  • Gives voters the right to file a single application to vote absentee in all elections 
  • Allows voters to verify their identity with a photo ID or signed statement
  • Requires military or overseas ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day.

The early voting provision, perhaps the most touted of the reforms brought by Proposal 2, presents a unique set of challenges that need to be resolved.

An analysis from the nonpartisan Livonia-based Citizens Research Council of Michigan says the proposal allows municipalities within the same county to share early voting sites. 

“For example, neighboring cities would be allowed to coordinate and combine their efforts to offer in-person early voting for residents of the two municipalities,” states the analysis. “The proposal also allows an early voting site to serve voters from more than six precincts, the current limit for combining precincts for in-person voting. In such cases, a combined early voting site would not be subject to the statutory limit on the number of voters assigned to a precinct (2,999 registered voters).”

However, for that to be accomplished several structural changes will be needed, including to the Qualified Voter File, which is the state’s master list of voters that is present at all polling locations.

“The QVF is going to need some major updates to allow for early voting and ballot tracking and real conversations are going to need to be had to continue to have safe and secure elections,” said Byrum.

Currently, the pollbook containing the QVF at polling locations is not connected to the internet. But if early voting permits ballots to be cast at any polling location, as is currently done in Illinois, it could create the potential for voters to take advantage of a “static” list to cast multiple ballots at different locations.

While Byrum says no one should dismiss concerns about connecting poll books to the internet, the issue should also be kept in perspective.

“The Qualified Voter File is not the election system,” she said. “So I think that’s important to note. There needs to be a discussion on how we are going to make sure that a voter is only issued one ballot during an election when we have multiple days of early voting and multiple voting centers. So these are discussions that need to be had and they need to be had relatively soon.”

Another issue concerns dates and deadlines.

“We’re going to need to change dates, whether that’s the filing deadlines for candidates, or as simple as the requirement for an election to be certified within two weeks from election day,” said Byrum. “Sometimes that’s difficult for our larger counties, and it’s certainly going to be more difficult when our military overseas voters are actually afforded the opportunity to have their ballot counted so long as it is postmarked on or before election day. That adds another week right there. So we certainly are going to need to see an extension of that deadline for elections to be certified by. We’re going to need some rule changes.”

They’re also going to need money.

The nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency has estimated that the cost to implement the drop box mandate alone would be $2.1 million and would “apply in all subsequent years as well, resulting in ongoing costs to replace approximately 1,800 drop boxes as they reach the end of their life cycle.” 

Meanwhile, the absentee ballot postage costs would run $4.8 million, although those “would be expected to taper in subsequent years due to decreasing AV ballot applications until it stabilizes.”

While the analysis noted the state’s $9.2 billion budget surplus, with an additional $16 million in federal election funding available, clerks at the local level are concerned about the costs they will incur having to staff early voting locations. 

That’s why Byrum says conversations like they had Tuesday are vital in that officials at all levels were involved.

“There are so many things and so many moving parts that are needed,” she said. “But what is crucial is that local city and township, as well as county, clerks must be involved in the implementation, the rules and the legislation. All the election administrators, whether they’re a small municipality or a large one, whether they’re Democrat or a Republican, we all need a seat at the table to properly represent our municipality and the struggles we are facing, so that we are prepared to serve all voters all around the state. Because what will work in Ingham County very well may not work in Menominee.”

From here, Byrum says the needed changes will be led by both the Michigan Association of County Clerks and the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, each of which has a legislative committee that will be driving the effort forward.

She said with a Democratic majority in the Legislature, she believes there is a definite understanding of the urgency and an expectation that lawmakers will be more receptive to the needs of election administrators.

“I do want to note that the majority of election administrators are Republicans,” said Byrum. “And it’s really unfortunate that the Republican-controlled Legislature last year and many years prior refused to act. And so the voters had to take matters into their own hands and pass Proposal 2. And now I look forward to implementing Proposal 2.”