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Legislation might grow absentee voter rolls
Monday, March 28, 2005

It could mean more work for her office, but a move toward no-reason absentee voting would please Saginaw County Clerk Susan Kaltenbach.

Residents could vote at their local clerk's office any time during the week before an election without a special reason under new legislation supported by Republican leaders in the state House.

"We absolutely need to go to a no-reason absentee voting," Kaltenbach said. 
Some people who seek absentee ballots under today's system lie to qualify, she said. A change would eliminate the need for voters to make up excuses why they won't cast ballots on Election Day.

However, Kaltenbach said the new system could prove burdensome to her office because township clerks aren't always available for residents to come in and receive the ballots, she said. She said her office likely would have to set up voting machines to tabulate the ballots.

The state now limits the option to those 60 and older or anyone who will be out of town, is in jail, has religious reasons for not voting on Election Day or needs assistance at the polls.

The bill would require voters to fill out their ballots in person after providing the clerk's office with a photo ID.

Brighton Republican Rep. Chris Ward, who introduced the bill, and Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land were to announce the bill at a news conference today.

Ward, a former township clerk, said he introduced the bill to help reduce long lines on Election Day without opening up the system to fraud.

"This is really just a new extra convenience in voting," he said. "The only thing that would change would be voting before Election Day."

The legislation appears to fall short of Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm's request to state lawmakers to remove restrictions on mail-in absentee ballots to boost turnout on Election Day.

"We can't embrace a bill that we haven't read, but certainly Gov. Granholm has called for a true no-reason, mail-in absentee voting program," Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd said.

Ward said he does not want implement such a sweeping change because of problems discovered in states that have unrestricted absentee voting by mail.

In Colorado, hundreds of residents are under investigation for possible voting violations in the November election, including casting multiple ballots. The state's election official said that at least 122 voters statewide apparently cast absentee ballots through the mail, then voted again Election Day.

Wisconsin voters waited in waited long lines Nov. 2 as clerks around the state sorted through absentee ballots, which are sent without a reason in that state.

"If we can do this, provided that it will work well and show that our elections system is air-tight, it will be easier to open it up to mail-in ballots," Ward said.

Kent County Clerk Mary Hollinrake said the legislation represents a compromise between Democrats who traditionally want restrictions removed from no-reason absentee voting and Republicans who fear that such changes would hurt the integrity of the voting process.

"Something is better than nothing," she said.

Hollinrake said the legislation would mean more work for her staff before an election but said it could handle the changes.

Twenty-six states allow no-reason absentee voting, and 23 have implemented early voting systems, an analysis by the House Republican Policy Office shows.

Ward's bill would allow voters to register for absentee ballots at any time during the 75 days before a general, primary or special election. The deadline for an application would be 2 p.m. the Saturday before an election. In cases of emergency, an absentee voter could file an application by 4 p.m. Election Day.

Ward heads the House Oversight, Elections and Ethics Committee, which he said will begin work on his legislation after lawmakers return from their spring recess Tuesday, April 12. He hopes the full House approves it before the summer recess.

Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche of Novi supports the bill, which will help it move through the chamber, where the GOP has a 58-52 majority, spokesman Matt Resch said.

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