Michigan's Election Landscape
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Of the eight states in New England and the upper Midwest that administer elections at the local level, Michigan has the largest population. With 83 county clerks, 280 city clerks, and 1,240 township clerks sharing election administration responsibility, Michigan is a close second beyond Wisconsin in having the most decentralized election administration structure in the nation.
An important distinctive feature of election administration in Michigan has been the close linkage of voting registration with driver’s licenses. Two decades before the National Voter Registration Act of 1994 mandated that state departments of motor vehicles provide voter registration services, Michigan passed an active “motor voter” law. In 2016, Michigan reported that 72% of all voter registrations in the state were processed through the Department of Motor Vehicles, compared to 33% nationwide.
Because of the passage of statewide Proposition 3 in the November 2018 election, Michigan will be experiencing significant changes to election administration in the coming years, including the implementation of same-day and automatic voter registration, and no-excuse absentee balloting,
Michigan’s Secretary of State is the state’s chief election officer. County, city, and township clerks are responsible for the administration of elections, including the maintenance of voter registration records. Each local level of election administration also has election commissions and boards of canvassers, which are responsible for election administration duties and post-election canvassing of election results, respectively.
On Election Day, polls in Michigan are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sources of Election Information
The Michigan Department of State maintains an online voter portal that provides links to information and services related to voter registration, polling places, ballot information, and absentee voting.
Useful online links to official Michigan voting information that are referenced in this report include the following:
- Michigan Secretary of State elections website
- Michigan Voter Information Center (voter portal)
- Online voter registration
- Michigan voter identification requirement
- Michigan voting equipment
- Election clerk look-up tool
- Michigan campaign finance disclosure website
The following information about the Michigan electoral landscape is based primarily on an analysis of Michigan statutes, augmented by other official documentation. Citations to statutes and other sources are provided in the text. The focus of the research was on the election law that governed the conduct of the 2016 election.
Proposition 3, which passed in the November 2018 general election, will affect election laws in the future. Among the provisions in Proposition 3, which amended the Michigan Constitution, were the institution of Election-Day and automatic voter registration, allowance for “no-excuse” absentee voting, the re-institution of straight-ticket party voting, and a requirement for post-election audits.
Michigan’s chief election officer is the Secretary of State, who has supervisory control over local election officials. M.C.L.A. § 168.21. The Secretary’s many election-related responsibilities include: issuing instructions and promulgating rules for the conduct of elections and registration, maintaining the statewide voter registration database, advising and directing local election officials on the proper conduct of elections, and publishing and furnishing a manual of instruction for each election precinct. M.C.L.A. § 168.31. The Secretary of State is assisted by the director of the bureau of elections. M.C.L.A. § 168.32.
State election results are compiled by the board of state canvassers. M.C.L.A. § 168.841. The board consists of four members appointed by the governor, two from each major political party. M.C.L.A. § 168.22. The director of the bureau of elections serves as a nonmember on the board of state canvassers
Municipal clerks maintain the local registration database and oversee operations at the polling places, assisted by a three-member municipal election commission that organizes precincts and appoints poll workers. M.C.L.A. §§ 168.25, .26, .27. Each of the state’s 83 counties also has its own board of election commissioners, consisting of the county clerk, the chief (or only) judge of the county or district probate court, and the county treasurer.. County boards of election prepare the official ballots for state, district, and county elections, and the county clerk sends ballots to the city or township clerks at least 10 days before any election. Id. § 714(2).
The Secretary of State maintains a county and municipal clerk online look-up tool.
1. Who is Eligible?
To vote in Michigan, individuals must be U.S. citizens, 18 years old, and a resident of the Michigan township or city in which they wish to vote for 30 days before the applicable election. M.C.L.A. § 168.492. Michigan prohibits individuals convicted of crimes from voting while confined, but restores their ability to vote once they are released. M.C.L.A. § 168.758b.
2. How to Register
Michigan’s voter registration process has undergone significant changes since the 2016 election, including the addition of electronic, automatic, and Election Day voter registration. (See M.C.L.A § 168.509ii, effective February 13, 2019, for electronic registration, M.C.L.A. § 168.493a, effective December 28, 2018, for automatic registration; and M.C.L.A. § 168.497(2) for Election-Day registration, effective December 28, 2018.) For the 2016 election, Michigan permitted registration in-person at public agencies designated by the Governor, M.C.L.A. § 168.509u, and registration by mail, M.C.L.A. § 168.497. Previously, regardless of registration method, voters had to be registered at least 30 days prior to Election Day. Effective December 28, 2018, a qualified elector may register in-person, on-line, or by mail up to 15 days before an election, M.C.L.A. § 168.497(1); during the period starting 14 days before an election and ending on Election Day, a qualified elector may register in-person at the office of the town or city clerk of the municipality in which he or she resides, M.C.L.A. § 168.497(2).
The Secretary of State maintains a secure on-line voter registration portal.
3. Registration Database
Michigan refers to its voter registration database as the “Qualified Voter File” (“QVF”). The QVF includes the name, residential address, driver license number, precinct number, digitized signature, and voting history for each voter in the state. M.C.L.A. § 168.509q. The Secretary of State is responsible for maintaining the computer system and programs necessary to operate the QVF. M.C.L.A. § 168.509r. All cities, counties, townships, and villages have access to the QVF. Id. Michigan also keeps an “inactive voter file” of voters who have not voted for six consecutive years or have not responded to a notice of residence. M.C.L.A. § 168.509r(5). The voter remains eligible to vote, but voters submitting absentee ballots who have failed to confirm residence information will have their ballots marked as challenged. Id. M.C.L.A. § 168.509r(8).
The Secretary of State considers Michigan’s voter registration database to be a “top-down system,” meaning that the database is “hosted on a single, central platform/mainframe and is generally maintained by the state with information supplied by local jurisdictions.” U.S. E.A.C. Statutory Overview 2016, 10.
Challenges to Voter Eligibility
1. Who Can Challenge?
Prior to Election Day, any voter can challenge the qualifications of any other registered elector within the same municipality by written affidavit, submitted to the municipal clerk. M.C.L.A. § 168.512. On Election Day, election inspectors or “qualified challenger[s]” can challenge the right of an individual attempting to vote. Id. at § 168.727(1). Qualified challengers are appointed by a political party or by “an incorporated organization or organized committee of citizens interested in the adoption or defeat of a ballot question being voted for or upon at the election, or interested in preserving the purity of elections.” Id. at § 168.730. Challengers must be registered Michigan voters. Id.
2. Basis for the Challenge
For challenges prior to Election Day, Michigan does not specify particular grounds for the challenge. See M.C.L.A. § 168.512. However, the challenger must specify the basis for the challenge, and the challenger is subject to criminal penalty if the challenge is made indiscriminately and without good cause. Id. For Election Day challenges, election inspectors and challengers must “know or ha[ve] good reason to suspect” that a voter either is not qualified or registered to vote in the particular precinct, or has previously applied for an absent ballot and is claiming to have not received, lost, or destroyed it. Id. at § 168.727(1). After a challenge is made, an election inspector must create a written report documenting the name of the challenger, the name of the challenged voter, the time of the challenge, and the nature of the challenge. Id. at § 168.727(2)(b).
3. Voting Process for a Challenged Voter
For pre-Election Day challenges, within thirty days of receiving notice of the challenge the challenged voters must either appear before the appropriate clerk to answer questions and take an oath affirming their status as a qualified voter, or submit an affidavit responding to the basis of the challenges and affirming their qualifications to vote. M.C.L.A. § 168.512. If a challenged voter fails to appear or provide an affidavit within thirty days, or the clerk finds that the voter’s statements do not show that the voter is qualified to vote, then the voter’s registration is cancelled. Id. For Election Day challenges, challenged voters must answer questions asked by an election inspector concerning their qualifications to vote. Id. at § 168.729. If a challenged voter’s answers to the questions show that the voter is qualified to vote in the appropriate precinct, the voter may receive a regular ballot and vote. Id.
1. Who Can Vote Provisionally?
Michigan is less specific than many states in defining who can vote provisionally. The relevant statute provides that provisional voting is available for any “individual who is not listed on the voter registration list at the polling place . . . .” M.C.L.A. § 168.523a(8). Although Michigan adopted same-day voter registration in 2018, the state continues to provide for provisional voting. Even prior to 2018, Michigan issued relatively few provisional ballots. For instance, in 2016, provisional ballots issued in Michigan amounted to only 0.04% of ballots cast, the eighth-lowest rate in the country among the states.
2. Provisional Voting Process
Michigan maintains three different voting options for voters not listed on the registration list (QVF). First, Michigan allows what essentially amounts to regular in-person voting if individuals present a receipt verifying the acceptance of a voter registration application and complete a new voter registration application. M.C.L.A § 168.523a(1). Second, individuals who do not present a receipt verifying the acceptance of a voter registration application, but who submit a sworn statement affirming that they submitted a voter registration application on or before the close of registration and are eligible to vote in the election, and who complete a new voter registration application with the approximate date and manner their prior registration application was submitted, are allowed to vote a “challenged ballot.” Challenged ballots are marked as such but are tabulated on Election Day in the same manner as ballots voted by those on the registration list. Id. at § 168.523(2)-(4). Third, traditional provisional ballots (ballots that are not tabulated on Election Day but are held until their validity can be individually evaluated) are offered to the following individuals: (1) those for whom the election inspector is unable to verify that the information provided in their affidavit and voter registration form is correct; (2) those who are not in the correct precinct; (3) those who do not present appropriate identification that contains a current residence address. Id. at § 168.523a(5).
3. Counting Provisional Ballots
For a provisional ballot voted under the last method described above, within six days of the election the city or township clerk must determine whether the individual voting the provisional ballot was eligible to vote and whether to tabulate the provisional ballot. M.C.L.A. § 168.813(1). In making this determination, the clerk must confirm whether a valid voter registration record exists for the voter, and confirm the voter’s current residence address, if the identification that the voter provided did not include a current residence address. Id. The clerk of each voting jurisdiction also must use a free access system that allows provisional voters to determine whether their ballot was tabulated, and if it was not, the reasons for that decision. Id. at § 168.523(7).
Early and Absentee Voting
1. General Eligibility
Michigan’s constitution requires the state legislature to enact laws for absentee voting. Mich. Const. art. 2 § 4. However, until 2018 Michigan restricted absentee voting to registered voters who (1) have a physical disability preventing them from unassisted in-person voting; (2) have a religious beliefs prohibiting in-person voting on Election Day; (3) are working as a precinct inspector in a precinct other than their own; (4) are 60 years of age or older; (5) will be absent from their precinct on Election Day; or (6) are confined in jail. M.C.L.A. § 168.758. Proposition 3, a popular initiative that passed in the 2018 November election, amended the state constitution to allow any voter to request an absentee ballot.
2. Regular Absentee Voting Logistics
Michigan voters may apply for an absentee ballot up to 75 days before the election, either via mail or in person. M.C.L.A. § 168.759. The application window now ends at 5:00 p.m. on the Friday before the election, but before the 2018 expansion of absentee voting to any registered voter, the application deadline to receive a ballot by mail had been 2:00 p.m. on the Saturday before the Election, and an application in-person could be made until 4:00 p.m. on the day prior to the election. The local clerk must keep a record of the identity of all absentee ballot applicants, date of receipt of the application, and method of ballot delivery. M.C.L.A. § 168.760. Michigan uses an online ballot tracker program that allows voters to track their absentee ballots (including receipt of ballot applications). M.C.L.A. § 168.764c. The ballot tracker is located at the Secretary of State’s online voter portal.
If an absentee ballot is not accepted, either because the voter’s signature does not match the signature on the voter’s registration card or for failure to comply with requirements for absentee ballots, the envelope containing the absentee vote shall be marked “rejected as illegal” along with the reason for the rejection. M.C.L.A. § 168.767. Rejected ballots must be returned to the city, township, or village clerk and preserved in the same manner as official ballots. Absentee ballots found acceptable are opened by the board of election inspectors and deposited in the proper ballot box. M.C.L.A. § 168.768. The board of election inspectors must note in the poll book that the vote was cast by means of an absentee ballot. Id.
Michigan law permits exceptions to the absentee ballot deadline in emergency situations, such as sickness or death of a family member. M.C.L.A. § 168.759b. In such cases, a voter may apply for an emergency absent voter ballot. This application may be made any time before 4:00 p.m. on Election Day, and the absentee ballot itself must be returned to the clerk prior to 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. Voters making false statements pertaining to emergency absentee ballots may be charged with a felony.
3. Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) Voters
Eligible uniformed service voters, their dependents, and overseas voters may request and return both their voter registration applications and their absent voter ballot applications using electronic transmission, and also may request to receive their absentee ballot electronically. M.C.L.A. § 169.759a(2), (7). Applications for a UOCAVA ballot are accepted until 2:00 p.m. on the Saturday before the election. M.C.L.A. §169.759a(10).
Michigan uses optical scan ballots with in-precinct tabulating equipment. A precinct with 1,000 or fewer registered voters must have not less than one voting machine for every 500 active registered voters. M.C.L.A. § 168.661. A precinct with between 1,000 and 3,000 registered voters shall have at least one voting machine for every 600 active voters. Id. Precincts with 3,000 or more registered voters are divided or rearranged. Id.
Official ballots are prepared by the board of election commissioners of each county. M.C.L.A. § 168.689. Precincts are required to have no less than 25% more ballots than the total number of votes cast for the office receiving the most votes at the election four years earlier. Id.
The Secretary of State maintains a website that allows voters to search for voting equipment used by county.
Polling Place Operations
1. Designation of Polling Place Locations
In Michigan, every organized city, ward, township, and village is designated as an election precinct, but local election boards may divide a single city, ward, township, or village into two or more election precincts as “necessary and convenient” for conducting elections. M.C.L.A. §§ 168.654, 168.657. The legislative body of each city, village, and town shall designate a suitable polling place for each election precinct. M.C.L.A. § 168.662. Generally, “school buildings, fire stations, police stations, and other publicly owned or controlled buildings” are preferred as polling places. Id.
2. Election Day Officials
By May 15 of each year, the county chair of “a major political party” can submit to the city or township clerks a list of registered voters who are interested in serving as election inspectors. M.C.L.A. § 168.673a. From this list, the city or township board of election commissioners must appoint at least three election inspectors for each election precinct between 21 and 40 days prior to an election. Id. at § 168.674. Election inspectors cannot be a “known active advocate” for a political party, a candidate or immediate family member of a candidate for election, or have previously committed a felony or election crime. Id. Finally, election inspectors must complete a “training school” and pass an examination every two years. Id. at § 168.683.
On Election Day, at least a majority of election inspectors (not less than two) must be present at each polling place during the time the polls are open. Id. at § 168.672. The election inspectors are charged, generally, with “maintain[ing] peace, regularity and order at [each] polling place….” Id. at § 168.678.
3. Voting Procedure
Polls open at 7:00 a.m. and close at 8:00 p.m. M.C.L.A. § 168.720. Election inspectors keep a “poll book,” in which they enter the voter’s name and the number of the ballot the voter is given. M.C.L.A. § 168.735. As of 2019, Michigan mandates the use of electronic poll books, M.C.L.A. § 168.668b (effective Mar. 28, 2019), although electronic poll books already were in widespread use in Michigan prior to that year.
Vote Counting and Recounting
The process for counting or canvassing ballots, which is conducted by the board of election inspectors, begins immediately after the polls are closed. M.C.L.A. § 168.801. The board begins by reconciling the poll lists. Id. Then, the ballot boxes are opened, and the total number of ballots are counted. Id.
County canvassers meet the following day and have the power to open ballot boxes, summon precinct inspectors to verify counts, and correct errors in the tally and returns identified during the canvassing process. M.C.L.A. §§168.822, 168.823. Within 24 hours of the completion of the canvass, the clerk of the board of county canvassers sends to the Secretary of State a certified copy of a statement of the election returns. M.C.L.A. § 168.828.
A recount is automatically triggered anytime a statewide primary or general election certified by the board of state canvassers is determined by a vote differential of 2,000 or fewer votes. M.C.L.A. § 168.880a. Candidates may also petition for a recount if they believe they were “aggrieved” by fraud or mistake in the canvass or returns. M.C.L.A. § 168.862. This petition may include all precincts or only specific precincts. Id. For federal and state offices, the deadline for petitioning for a recount is 48 hours after the completion of the canvass or certification. See M.C.L.A. § 168.879(c).
Prior to the passage of Proposition 3 in 2018, Michigan statute provided for post-election audits, but did not specify that the audits would review vote tallies. As a consequence, post-election audits were primarily procedural. Following the passage of Proposition 3, the review of ballots was written into the law. M.CL.A. § 168.31a. Although the precise type of post-election tabulation audit is unspecified, the Secretary of State piloted the use of risk-limiting audits in a few local 2019 elections.
Michigan’s ballot chain-of-custody begins with the county board of election commissioners, which prepares the official ballots for state, district, and county elections. M.C.L.A. § 168.689. At least 45 days before a regular election, the county clerk will deliver absent voter ballots to the city or township clerks. M.C.L.A. § 168.714(1). The county clerk sends regular ballots to the city or township clerk at least 10 days before any election. Id. § 714(2). The city or county clerk then delivers the ballots to a member of the board of inspectors of election before 7 a.m. on the day of the election and receives a receipt for the delivery. Id.
Ballots are given to voters at the precinct after they have identified themselves by a proscribed form of identification such as a driver’s license. M.C.L.A. § 168.523(1). Voters without a picture identification may be given a ballot upon signing an affidavit. Id. § 168.523(2). The voter’s signature on the ballot application will then be compared with their previous signature in the QVF. Id. If it does not “correspond,” the voter’s vote will be challenged and the ballot will be processed as a challenged ballot under § 727. Id.
Campaign Finance Regulation
Michigan imposes a $2,000 limit on the amount any person may contribute to a candidate to the state senate per election cycle, a $1,000 limit on contributions to candidates for the state house of representatives, and a $6,800 limit on contributions to candidates for state elective office other than state legislator. M.C.L.A. § 169.252. A person may not accept or make a single contribution greater than $20 in cash or make or accept a single expenditure of more than $50 in cash. M.C.L.A. § 169.241. Amounts greater than these, with the exception of in-kind contributions or expenditures, must be made by a “written instrument” containing the names of the payor and payee. Id.
It is possible to search disclosure documents and download campaign finance data using the Michigan Campaign Disclosure website.