According to Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Michigan voters should be able to cast absentee ballots without providing a reason. That was one of a slew of proposals Johnson, in her first State of the Secretary of State Address held last week, highlighted as goals for her stint as the state’s top elections official. So-called no-reason absentee voting has been one of our pet issues for some time now. Bills authorizing no-reason absentee voting have been introduced in past legislative sessions, only to be shot down by Republicans who claim such a change would result in voting fraud. Not only do we doubt that would be case, but we suspect that’s not why Republicans generally oppose the idea. GOP lawmakers need to set aside their party-line dogma and consider the idea on its merits. If they do that, instead of worrying about what’s best for their party politically, all voters would benefit from the ability to cast an absentee ballot if they so choose.
Johnson’s call for no-reason absentee voting is somewhat unique among Republicans. Legislation has been introduced in past and current legislative sessions — including House Bill (HB) 4520, which has been referred to the House Redistricting and Elections Committee — to essentially eliminate the criteria one must meet to be an absentee voter. Some of those earlier bills were approved by the House but thwarted by the Senate.
Under current state law, people are allowed to obtain and vote an absentee ballot if they meet one of the following criteria:
• The voter is 60-years-old or older;
• The voter is unable to vote without assistance at the polls;
• The voter is expecting to be out of town on election day;
• The voter is in jail awaiting arraignment or trial;
• The voter is unable attend the polls due to religious reasons; or
• The voter is appointed to work as an election inspector in a precinct outside of his or her own precinct.
Supporters of no-reason absentee voting state it’s becoming harder for voters to make it to the polls as many now have to work harder to make ends meet during these difficult economic conditions, and no-reason absentee voting would make it easier to participate in elections.
Not surprisingly, Johnson’s call for the change in election law is being met with a lukewarm response from area Republican lawmakers, who once again cite concerns about election fraud.
Michigan’s absentee voting laws are overdue for changes. The state should follow the lead of others that have liberalized voting laws and procedures. Allowing so no-reason absentee voting fits that bill.
The nature of our society has changed since the existing absentee voting system was enacted. We now live in a much more mobile society, where many voters work outside their home community on election day and don’t return home until an hour or so before the polls close. Others work more than one job or work during the day and attend classes in the evening, or vice versa. Allowing people to cast an absentee ballot would bolster participation in elections and produce a more accurate reflection of the electorate’s wishes.
We aren’t willing to accept the nay-sayers’ fraud arguments. There’s been no persistent fraud associated with the current absentee voting process, and opening up absentee voting to all registered voters wouldn’t necessarily lead to mass fraud. Municipal clerk offices can verify absentee ballot application information — including voters’ signatures by referencing voter ID cards — just as they do now under the current absentee voting system.
Republicans who traditionally bristle at the idea of no-reason absentee voting need to keep in mind there’s general support for liberalizing absentee voting restrictions — including backing for no-reason absentee voting — among the municipal clerks responsible for running elections. In the lakes area, many of the municipal clerks that favor easing or elimination of absentee voting restrictions are Republicans. Yet their fellow party members in Lansing continue to hold on to tired arguments against this reasonable reform.
And here’s a news flash for Republicans: A lot of voters who don’t meet any of the criteria for absentee voting obtain absentee ballots by claiming they do meet one of the criterion. What’s a municipal clerk to do, make an applicant show proof that they’re going to be out of town on election day, or that their religious tenets prevent them from voting at the polls? Most clerks, to their credit, have no interest or inclination to do that. It makes one question the value of having absentee voting criteria.
We suspect what the GOP really fears is that no-reason absentee voting would result in more Democratic supporters casting ballots. Instead of worrying about their party caucus position and a potential boost in votes for Democratic candidates, they should join Johnson in supporting a reform that would make participation in elections easier and broader among the electorate.