By Michael Martina
DETROIT (Reuters) – Thousands of Michigan voters might be disenfranchised and the country could wait days for the November presidential election results unless the state updates laws to handle a flood of absentee ballots, its top elections official warned on Thursday.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters that more than 10,000 absentee ballots had been rejected – many because they arrived late – in the battleground state’s Tuesday primary, seen as a test of voting infrastructure amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That number could pale in comparison to ballots rejected in the Nov. 3 election, when a record number of mail-in ballots are expected, she said.
Benson called on Michigan legislators to update laws to allow election staff to begin processing mail-in ballots a day before the election, and to permit any arriving up to two days after the election to be counted.
“Those are valid ballots. They were voted on-time and submitted on-time, and our voters’ rights should not be subject to the capacity of the U.S. Postal Service,” Benson, a Democrat, said of those rejected this week.
In Tuesday’s primary in Michigan, a record 1.6 million absentee ballots were cast, an increase attributed to voters seeking to avoid exposure to the virus and to new rules from 2018 that allow for universal no-excuse mail voting.
Election officials there expect mail-in ballots could double for the presidential election pitting Republican President Donald Trump against Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Trump claims, without evidence, that mail-in voting is prone to fraud, and he has also questioned whether the Postal Service can handle the increased volume. Democrats and voting rights groups have warned that recent cuts in Postal Service overtime may exacerbate delays.
The issue of Postal Service funding has become part of the fight in the U.S. Congress over a new coronavirus relief package.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer demanded on Wednesday that the Trump administration rescind regulations to cut employment and overtime at the Postal Service.
“We need those to vote, and we will advocate strongly for money so that they can hire all the people necessary, both overtime and new people, to make sure that every single ballot is counted,” Schumer said.
Benson said that without more federal funding for poll workers and counting machines, as well as the law changes, the nation should brace for a long wait for results out of Michigan.
“What that tells us is if there is no change in the law, that it will likely be well into Friday, or potentially the weekend, before we can get results for November’s elections in the closest races in our state,” Benson said.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)