Ann Arbor experiences increase in absentee voting

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 6:23pm

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Miles Macklin/Daily

Ann Arbor experienced a 22 percent increase in absentee voting during the Aug. 6 election, data from the city shows. Deputy City Clerk Steve Gerhart said his office did not experience a major influx of activity, despite the the increase in voting through alternative routes.

In November 2018, Michigan passed Proposal 3, which allows all eligible voters to cast an absentee ballot without explicit justification. Nearly a year since its passage, Ann Arbor has already begun to see its effects.

Prior to the proposal’s passage, absentee voting was limited to those over 60, those unable to get to the polls because they were out of town or prohibited by religious circumstance, those awaiting arraignment or trial, those who could not vote without assistance and those who were working to coordinate the election outside their precinct. The Aug. 6 election was the first since the passing of Proposal 3.

Gerhart attributed the increased absentee voting to registration done online or over the course of months leading up to the actual election. All Ann Arbor registered voters are able to request an absentee ballot from the city clerk’s office beginning 75 days prior to any election and extending until the Monday prior. Voters need not fill out a formal request. Ann Arbor absentee ballots can be requested in person, over the phone or by email.

When retrieving absentee ballots from the city clerk’s office, recipients are subject to the same voter identification laws as all other Michiganders. Applicants presenting requests within 14 days of the election will be required to show proof of residency.

Ann Arbor also offers residents the option to sign up online and have their ballots mailed to their home six to eight weeks prior to every election, which Gerhart says the clerk’s office has “definitely been pushing.” Those subscribed to this service may still choose to vote in person from election to election; it only requires them to leave the mailed ballots blank.

“Our list has grown about 50 percent since Prop 3 last November, so that’s kind of the biggest thing,” Gerhart said.

Students in particular anticipated making use their new ability to vote absentee. Gerhart said he believes this is where most of the proposal’s implications will be invoked through new, more expansive voter registration practices including the ability to register on election day.

“Moving forward, looking to 2020, that will be a larger thing,” Gerhart said.

Gerhart noted the proposal will also make it easier for students who are passionate about their hometown’s local politics to vote if they choose to do so in their home district rather than at school. This was the case for Business sophomore Phoebe Block.

Block had difficulty voting in her hometown of Farmington Hills during the 2018 midterms. She ultimately chose to Uber 45 minutes home and 45 minutes back to campus so she could vote in September, unable to procure an absentee ballot beforehand. Block said she was happy to see Proposal 3 pass.

However, even with the proposal’s success, Block still advises students to plan their election day ahead of time.

“Definitely for freshmen, it’s just an added layer to the transition, so thinking about it in advance is definitely my biggest piece of advice,” Block said.

While Proposal 3’s same-day voting provisions may increase student voter turnout in Ann Arbor, Gerhart said the proposal’s allowed access to absentee ballots may result in students electing to vote at home instead. Regardless, Gerhart said the clerk’s office is “open to either way.”

“I would definitely encourage students to vote by absentee,” Gerhart said.

Ann Arbor city clerk Jackie Beaudry was appointed by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in February to an advisory committee tasked with the implementation of Proposal 3. The Aug. 6 elections across the state allowed Benson and her committee to recognize an unanticipated result of increased voter turnout: the more votes there are to be counted, the longer it will take.

Beaudry told MLive she hopes there will someday be “true early voting” where the results are tabulated upon submission, rather than storing the absentee ballots to be counted on election day. Beaudry favors this idea also because it would reduce the paper waste of multiple envelopes used to ensure the security of absentee ballots.

In contrast, Benson believes the problem may be solved if more time is afforded to tabulators either preceding or following their now-permitted window. She also noted the committee will continue to ponder this and other implementation roadblocks.

“I am grateful to the local and national experts who have agreed to come together to ensure we do just that, modernizing our elections, applying best practices and making Michigan a national model for clean, efficient and secure elections,” Benson said.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson does not oppose "true early voting."