If Michigan voters approve a set of voting reforms on the November ballot, they’ll get nine days of early in-person voting in future major elections. The local clerks who would be charged with providing the new option say it would make voting more convenient and elections smoother to conduct — but at a cost they don’t yet know and with no clear plans to pay for it.
Adam Wit, the president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, says local election administrators are “sort of nervous” about Proposal 2.
“It is a big unknown,” said Wit, who added the secretary of state and the state Legislature will have to work out the answers to questions about process and cost.
But Michigan voters won’t know the answers to those questions until they decide whether or not to approve the proposal.
Wit noted that since many other states, such as Illinois, Georgia, and New Jersey, already offer in-person early voting, Michigan “doesn’t have to start from scratch” and can look at their early voting models for guidance.
Paul Gronke, a political science professor and director of the Elections & Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon, said that when implementing early voting, the “devil is in the details” of its provisions, but generally the expansion does increase voter turnout.
“Early voting is broadly popular,” said Gronke. “When voters can have the option, they go for it.”
Michigan already allows early in-person absentee voting for 40 days before the election, when voters can go to their local clerk’s office — or, in a few cities, a satellite office — to apply for and cast an absentee ballot. Prop 2 would give voters a full work week and two weekends to go to a polling site and cast a ballot the same way they do on Election Day, including feeding it into a tabulator themselves.
Macomb County Clerk Anthony Forlini says that while he believes early in-person voting should be an option for voters, he is concerned about how the townships with fewer resources will deal with it.
“For the smaller communities, most of the clerks are part-time, and now they have to be open longer,” Forlini said.
Laura Eisele, the clerk of Livingston County’s Handy Township and the Village of Fowlerville for 22 years, oversees elections for 6,600 voters and is concerned about how she would staff a polling site for multiple days of voting.
“Under current law, the township would be required to staff that early voting precinct with a minimum of three people,” explained Eisele. “This would leave no one to cover for breaks or meals … so, most likely five people each day would be necessary.”
The staffing cost could be “in excess of” $10,000, Eisele estimated, noting it’s unclear what the total costs of opening an early voting site would be.
New Jersey implemented nine days of early voting last year and offered it for both its 2021 state elections and the 2022 primary. Estimates for implementing the option, which included the purchase of thousands of electronic poll books in every county, were around $80 million, with the state paying much of that bill. The state’s most populous county, Bergen County, spent $500,000 to launch early voting at nine polling places last year. Now that it’s up and running, the bill runs Bergen about $90,000 per election.
Kurtis Fernandez is a field supervisor for Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote, a partner for the Promote the Vote 2022 coalition that gathered more than 600,000 signatures to get the proposal on the ballot. He said the Promote the Vote organizers have heard local election officials’ concerns about Prop 2.
“We talked with local clerks about how best to implement early voting given the diversity of Michigan municipalities,” said Fernandez. “For clerks who have a significant number of voters who already vote in-person absentee, some of whom currently operate satellite clerk’s offices, we expect the costs to go down because early voting is more streamlined as compared to in-person absentee voting.”
Prop 2 would allow municipalities from the same county to share an early voting site, which could enable those local governments to split the costs, but the proposition doesn’t specify how many jurisdictions could go in together on a single polling place — yet another question that would have to be answered later.
Elliott Fullmer, associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and an expert on voting behavior, says while more days of voting will give voters more time to cast their ballots, its effect on turnout also depends heavily on the numbers of voting sites available to voters.
“A good number of states have had early voting for decades,” Fullmer said. “Most election officials say early voting makes for better administration.”
The secretary of state’s office, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on any possible plans for funding or implementing early voting if Prop 2 passes. Organizers behind Promote the Vote also declined to offer any ideas for how Michigan might pay for early voting.
Once the costs are covered, many election officials and experts say there are several benefits to early voting — both for voters and themselves. Spreading in-person voting out over nine more days would give clerks a chance to discover problems, Fullmer said. During early voting, for example, clerks will make sure their machines are functioning properly and their workers are correctly trained to use them, which can prevent surprises and breakdowns during the crush of Election Day voting.
More voting in person also likely means fewer absentee ballots to count on Election Day, said Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown. (And clerks will start having an easier absentee-ballot workload this year, now that they will get to pre-process those ballots — check ballot numbers and open envelopes — two days before Election Day, because of a new law change from the legislature.)
Brown said if the law passes and Oakland County is called on to provide one of the polling places for in-person voting, her office is willing to step up.
“I would totally be in favor of that,” Brown said. “People are already here for other business, and we have [two] tabulators.”
Like most local officials and clerks Votebeat Michigan has interviewed, Brown says she doesn’t know how much the extra days of voting will cost local governments or whether the state would help fund it. She said at this point, everyone is just waiting to see what happens with the measure on Nov. 8.
“We’ll go from there,” said Brown. “We never know what legislators will do.”
Other clerks also welcome the change but are fretting about specific logistical concerns as they await details.
Livonia Clerk Susan Nash says early voting would bring more work for clerks who would have to open and close polling places, since the ballot tabulator will be brought out multiple days, instead of once on Election Day. Nash worries about providing security for those tabulators — already a concern since the reported breaches of five tabulators in Michigan last year — over the nine-day early voting period.
“There will be a whole new world of security information,” Nash said. “I don’t know if we’re going to close [the tabulator] out each night.”
Hamtramck Clerk Rana Faraj, who oversees voting for 13,000 voters, says she anticipates hiring additional staff if the proposal passes. She also thinks the change would require additional work to prepare multilingual ballots in her city, which are printed after the English-language ballots are delivered.
“We will have to work on getting the multilingual ballots earlier,” said Faraj. “We offer three separate ballots in English, Arabic, and Bangla.”
The proposal made it onto the ballot even after the two Republicans on the Board of State Canvassers blocked the proposal in August through a deadlocked vote along party lines. The Republican board members voted not to certify the petitions after an opposition group challenged the ballot language for Proposal 2. The Michigan Supreme Court overruled the board of canvassers, deciding on Sept. 8 that the proposal should go before voters.
Other provisions of Prop 2 would require more ballot drop boxes, allow voters to sign up for a permanent absentee ballot list, and change voter ID requirements to allow voters to sign an affidavit affirming their identity.
Longtime voter and Detroit resident Stephen Singleton says he favors the provisions Proposal 2 and plans to vote for it, especially the relaxing of the ID requirement and expanded voting.
“I like the nine days of early voting because it allows voting for all,” said Singleton, a pastoral assistant for Catholic churches in metro Detroit. “Sometimes people can’t get off work, find a babysitter or may have a doctor’s appointment, so they miss voting that day because of obligations.”
In-person early voting has steadily increased in popularity in the past four decades across the United States. Texas became the first state to implement early voting in the 1980s. Now more than 40 states and U.S. territories offer some form of early in-person voting.
Ultimately, Reed College’s Gronke said, governments should see that the costs of early voting are worth it and should come up with the funding to make it work.
“Many of us are concerned that we have democracy on the cheap,” Gronke said.
This article is made possible through a partnership with Bridge Michigan, Michigan’s largest nonpartisan, nonprofit news publication.
Oralandar Brand-Williams is a senior reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Bridge Michigan. Contact Oralandar at firstname.lastname@example.org.