Sharon Dolente is the Voting Rights Strategist for the ACLU of Michigan.

The Fight to Support Absentee Voting Continues

As a freshman at the University of Michigan, Isabella “Izzy” Beshouri eagerly anticipated casting her first ballot ever as the March 2020 presidential primary election approached. Although living on campus, her hometown of Birmingham, in Oakland County, remained her permanent residence.

Because of that, she applied for an absentee ballot so that she could vote by mail. That way she could participate in the electoral process without having to miss any classes. But it was spring break when the ballot first arrived, and Ms. Beshouri wasn’t on campus to receive it.

“By the time I was back and able to receive my mail, it was the Sunday before the election,” she recalls. “I filled out my ballot and sent it in immediately upon my return to campus.”

It's important to me to vote because it's one action I can take to effect change,” explains Ms. Beshouri. “I vote because I can't imagine not voting.”

It's important to me to vote because it's one action I can take to effect change,” explains Ms. Beshouri. “I vote because I can't imagine not voting.”

Unfortunately,  the clerk’s office didn’t receive her ballot until after Election Day. Under Michigan’s current law, that meant her ballot was rejected and her voice wouldn’t be heard in the election.

“It was actually the first election I would’ve ever voted in, so you can imagine that fact amplified my disappointment,” she says.  “I had hoped that the ballot would arrive on time.”

But it didn’t. Which meant that she, like thousands of other Michigan voters, needlessly had their ballots rejected.

The ACLU of Michigan wants to guard against that happening in the future.  That is why we went to court with our partner, the League of Women Voters of Michigan, to challenge Michigan’s antiquated requirement that absentee ballots must be received by the time polls close on Election Day.  The law was enacted more than 90 years ago, when mail was processed locally and delivered the next day.

The law needs to change just as the mail and how we vote have changed.  The deadline should be when a mailed-in ballot is postmarked, not when it arrives. As Ms. Beshouri points out, she has no control over her ballot once it is in the hands of the U.S. Postal Service. As long as a ballot has been put in the mail by Election Day, it should be counted.

That’s not a radical concept. Eleven other states already have such a system in place. It is urgent that Michigan follow their lead.

The August primary and November general elections are fast approaching, and unless action is quickly taken to correct the problem, tens of thousands of Michigan voters will find themselves like Ms. Beshouri, with their voices needlessly silenced.

Because of the passage of Prop. 3 in 2018, any voter who wants to cast an absentee ballot is able to do so. No reason needs to be given. As a result, more people than ever are using absentee ballots. But that also means more people than ever are having their ballots rejected because they arrive after the polls close. That happened to more than 3,300 people in the March primary.

Now, because of health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, which is likely to continue throughout the summer and into the fall, even more people will be availing themselves of the convenience and safety of voting by absentee ballot from home.

It is conservatively estimated that, if things don’t change, more than 40,000 absentee ballots cast in the upcoming presidential election could be rejected because they arrive “late.” Given that the 2016 presidential election in Michigan was decided by a margin of less than 11,000 votes, there’s no doubt that the outcome could easily be affected by this issue.

It is also an issue of fairness. In a time when late-breaking events can affect how a person decides to vote, absentee voters like Ms. Beshouri should have until Election Day to make their decision, just as people going to the polls are able to do.

More than anything, though, this is about the legitimacy of democracy in Michigan. Allowing this antiquated law to stand would mean sanctioning the voter suppression of tens of thousands of Michigan citizens in one of the most important elections of my lifetime. That’s why we went to court to challenge this law and why we’ll keep fighting every day to protect the right of every eligible voter to make their voice heard at the ballot box.