When it comes to voting rights, Michiganders like to take matters into their own hands.
As Republicans in the state peddled election conspiracy theories last year, voters and advocacy groups gathered more than a half-million signatures, proposed a constitutional amendment to expand voting access on the ballot and passed it with 62% support.
Early voting, a permanent absentee voting list and other rights became part of the state constitution overnight, a seismic shift applauded by advocates and Democrats.
But now, local election officials have to do the hard work of making these changes a reality — in a presidential election year, no less.
County, city and township clerks across the state are scrambling to make the necessary preparations for early voting, which will require them to deploy new poll workers, new processes and new software they haven’t yet seen.
And while officials said they were mostly confident that they would be able to make the changes, they’re acutely aware they’re being forced to do so in a political environment — and a state — where even routine election administration is at times misconstrued as fraud.
“It’s been a real struggle, because we don’t have the software developed, we don’t have the people developed, and you are being thrown into a situation where this nine days of early voting has not been tested before,” said Anthony Forlini, a Republican clerk for Macomb County, which is part of the northern Metro Detroit area. “To test-drive this system for the 2024 election — it keeps me up at night.”
“It’s a pretty steep learning curve,” said ChrisSwope, the Democratic clerk in Michigan’s capital city, Lansing. “I’m confident we’ll get there, it’s just right now it feels like there’s more questions than answers.”
The 2022 constitutional amendment included the right to nine days of early voting and to be placed on a permanent absentee voting list, receiving ballots at home for every election. It also said voters could use photo ID or sign an affidavit to vote, and must be given access to drop boxes, paid ballot postage and ballot tracking.
Implementation legislation followed this summer, with the state putting aside approximately $46 million to make election changes.
The amendment was pushed by a coalition of groups and individuals known as Promote the Vote, which had successfully written no-excuse mail voting and same-day voter registration into the constitution in 2018.
Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican clerk for Kent County, which includes part of Grand Rapids, said that she and her fellow clerks were “really just now finalizing and being able to implement” the changes from 2018, let alone the new ones from 2022.
“It’s just been for election administrators so much change to implement,” she said.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said her office was doubling staff to help support clerks, helping to recruit poll workers, and working with clerks to make sure they have enough funding to make the changes. They’re also readying grants and educational materials, she added.
“I have every confidence that they’ll be ready to meet the moment in 2024,” she said.
Thousands of clerks and untested software
Rolling out new election rules is often challenging, but it’s especially so in Michigan.
Michigan is the largest state that administers its elections at the local level, with 1,240 township clerks, 280 city clerks and 83 county clerks running the state’s democracy. Those officials expect to tap thousands of poll workers — many of whom will be new recruits — to cover the nine days of early voting.
Michael Siegrist, the Democratic clerk for Canton Township, said the state’s decentralized election — a hyper local, “Norman Rockwell-style form of voting” — makes this system overhaul tough.
“Most election officials in Michigan are either part time or there’s one full-time employee in their office, and now they’re having to orchestrate a very, very complex system,” he said. “It’s a challenge.”
The Democratic-led Legislature changed a significant amount of the election code to enact the amendment, Siegrist added, and the state’s election manuals all need to be rewritten.
“We have to get every single different entity that works in elections on the same page,” said Kathleen Zanotti, the Democratic county clerk for Bay County. “I have to retrain my board of canvassers, I have to retrain my election inspectors, I have to recruit new election inspectors, I have to learn the material myself, and then our local clerks will have to learn it too. There’s a lot of different people involved in the process who have to learn an entirely new thing.”
The state is in the process of developing software for online poll books needed for early voting, but it’s not yet done. Some clerks urged the state to buy software that’s been tested and vetted in the field in other states.
According to Angela Benander, a spokesperson for Benson, the state was forced to develop its own software due to the existing election code. State lawmakers passed legislation that will allow them to buy software in the future, but it won’t go into effect until 90 days after the Legislature adjourns — which could be after the primaries.
That’s little comfort to clerks. Deploying new software in a major election is “crazy” Forlini said. “I think it’s absolutely ludicrous.”
“I’m a little nervous,” Siegrist added.
A handful of areas, including the city of Lansing, plan to offer early voting this November, but the state hasn’t yet delivered the software, Swope said. He scheduled his poll worker training later than usual in hope of having time to learn the software before he has to teach it to them.
“I hope it works,” he said of the program.
The Legislature gave clerks options on how they implement early voting; cities and towns can run their own early voting, or team up with other areas to do so. Counties can run their own early voting, as well.
Still, some clerks said they fear that voters won’t embrace the change.
“We’re real rural, so this nine days of early voting is going to be kind of a challenge for us,” said Carol Bronzyk, the county clerk in Dickinson County, a county on the border of Wisconsin with approximately 25,000 residents.
Dickinson plans to offer one early voting site for the county, and all told, the changes will cost taxpayers approximately $60,000, Bronzyk said.
“Are we going to be spending all this money for five voters?” she wondered.
‘The voters have spoken’
Citizen ballot initiatives empower voters to force policy changes by sidestepping the state Legislature. At the time of the latest amendment, the Michigan Legislature was Republican-controlled and interested in restricting — not expanding — voting access. But in interviews, clerks said they felt the ballot measure process sidestepped their expertise, too.
Posthumus Lyons, a former state legislator, said she publicly opposed the ballot measure but didn’t feel like her voice could compete with a statewide campaign directed at voters and advocating for its passage. In the Legislature, she said, it’s easier for election officials to be heard.
“In a committee hearing, there’s undivided attention, there’s people who it’s their job to focus on these policies and this feedback and their input,” she said.
Khalilah Spencer, president of Promote the Vote, said “pro-voter” clerks were among those consulted when crafting the constitutional amendment.
“It’s going to take an effort to move to systems that work and are efficient, but I don’t know if I would even call it bumpy as of yet because we have elections this year that will show us what changes need to be made in terms of statutes and legislation,” she said. “People are resistant to change, but the voters have spoken.”
She said that the amendment was necessary to enshrine certain rights so that they could not be changed by the state Legislature. Clerks have had more than a year to prepare for the election changes, she added.
State Sen. Jeremy Moss, a Democrat and chair of the Michigan Senate Elections Committee, said the Republican-controlled Legislature in past years refused to embrace such voting rights expansions, leaving advocates without legislative options. Democrats took control of the Legislature this year, after a citizens redistricting committee, created by a 2018 constitutional amendment, drew new redistricting line in 2021.
Moss said lawmakers spent months working with clerks and others to write implementing legislation for the 2022 constitutional amendment. They hosted two months of weekly Zoom meetings, where they went over the legislation line by line.
But since the constitutional changes went into immediate effect, the legislation was unable to offer the one change many election officials said they wanted: more time.
“The off year — the odd-numbered years — those are the years where we like to think outside the box,” said Justin Roebuck, the Republican clerk for Ottawa County, which is near Grand Rapids. “We’re finding ourselves facing unique challenges in the sense that this is a watershed moment in our election process that we have to have up and ready and running in a very big year already.”
Jane C. Timm
Jane C. Timm is a senior reporter for NBC News.