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Here's what you need to know about absentee voting in Michigan

absentee ballot
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

This year, absentee ballots are all the rage.

Michigan voters passed a ballot measure in 2018 that allows for no-reason absentee voting. Now, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused ballot requests to skyrocket. 

Starting September 24, local clerks will begin to send ballots to the 2.39 million Michiganders who have already requested them. That beats the previous record of two million ballot requests, which was just set in August.

But between problems at the U.S. Postal Service and false claims that mail-in voting is fraudulent, a lot of voters have questions about how best to guarantee their vote is counted.

Here's what you need to know as you head to the mailbox.

What's the difference between absentee voting and mail-in voting?

There is no difference between absentee voting and mail-in voting. They are just different names for the same thing. What the practice is called largely depends on which state you're talking about, and when that state first implimented its vote-by-mail rules. 

Currently, 34 states and the District of Columbia allow any voter to use an absentee ballot without an excuse, and the other 16 states allow at least some of their populations to vote by mail.

Early voting, which starts September 24 in Michigan, is slightly different. Instead of requesting an absentee ballot, receiving it in the mail, and sending it back,  you can go to your local clerk's office and vote there any time between now and Election Day.

Is absentee voting less safe than voting in-person?

There is no evidence that absentee voting is less secure than in-person voting.

President Donald Trump has falsely claimed that mail-in voting isn't secure, and that it will lead to voter fraud. Other Republican leaders have also cast doubt on the safety of mail-in voting, without providing any evidence to back up their claims.

Elections experts say that while vote-by-mail fraud does exist, it is such a miniscule amount that it is statistically irrelevent. 

Trump himself votes absentee in the state of Florida. And months after threatening to withhold federal aid to Michigan after Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sent absentee ballot applications to voters, the president has changed his tune, and is encouraging Michiganders to vote early.

Can I get an absentee ballot?

Are you 18 or older and registered to vote? If the answer's yes, you can get an absentee ballot!

If you're 18 or older, and not registered to vote, you can register and request an absentee ballot at the same time.

After years of voting rights advocates pushing for no-reason absentee voting, the measure was finally made law in 2018 when voters passed Proposal 3. The wide-ranging constitutional amendment also gives people the ability to register to vote on Election Day, and to vote straight ticket.

Before 2018, you had to be a senior citizen, have a physical disability, or know you would be out of town on Election Day, among other reasons.

How does absentee voting work?

If you want to have an absentee ballot mailed to you, you have to fill out an online form, or print and fill out a request form and either mail that to your county clerk. The form has to be received by your clerk no later than 5 p.m. on the Friday before an election. 

If you're already registered at your current address, you have until 4 p.m. on the day before an election to request an absentee ballot in person at your clerk's office. You can even register to vote on Election Day and get an absentee ballot at the clerk's office at the same time. (But if you're down to the wire on Election Day or the day before, you have to vote in the clerk's office.)

On the request form, you can choose to vote absentee in just the November 3 general election or to become a permanent absentee voter. 

Your clerk will then mail the ballot to your preferred address. You vote like you normally would, put the ballot in a secret envelope, and return it to your clerk by Election Day.

There are many ways to make sure your ballot is counted. If you want to return your ballot by mail, but issues with the U.S. Postal Service have you concerned, don't worry. A Michigan judge recently ruled that as long as the ballot is postmarked by Election Day and received within two weeks of the election, it must be counted.

You can also use a drop box to return your ballot. 

All ballots are tracked, so you can go to the Michigan Voter Information Center to see when your ballot has been marked as received. 

What if I want to change my vote, but I've already returned my ballot?

A lot can happen between now and election day. If you happen to change your mind, and you've already mailed in your ballot, fear not: you can change your vote.

According to the Secretary of State's office, "The voter must sign the request and state if they would like a new absentee ballot mailed to them or if they will vote at the polls. This request must be received by 2 p.m. the Saturday before the election if received by mail. An absentee ballot may be spoiled in person at the clerk’s office until 4 p.m. the Monday prior to the election."

The presidential election is Tuesday, November 3.

This post was originally written before the March 10 primary.

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Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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