19/09/2020 2:41 AM AEST

Michigan Judge Extends Mailed Ballot Receipt Deadline In Another Big Win For Democrats

Mail-in absentee ballots will count up to 14 days after the election if they are sent by Nov. 2.

Mailed ballots in the key swing state of Michigan will now have up to 14 days after the election to arrive at their destination to be counted so long as they are postmarked one day before the Nov. 3 Election Day, according to a Michigan state court judge’s ruling on Friday.

The ruling by Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens approved preliminary injunctive relief for two out of three challenges to Michigan election law that were brought by Marc Elias, the Democratic Party’s top elections lawyer, on behalf of a retirees group. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, which have been waging a false propaganda campaign to undermine faith in mailed absentee ballots, oppose these changes to Michigan election law.

Those legal challenges aimed to extend the ballot receipt deadline, allow third parties to collect and return absentee ballots on behalf of voters and require the state to provide prepaid postage for all mailed absentee ballots. Stephens’ order approved the extension of the ballot receipt deadline and allowed third-party collection of ballots during a limited period while striking down the effort to mandate prepaid postage.

Absent an appeal, this ruling means that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of ballots that would otherwise have been invalidated through no fault of the voter will now be counted so long as the voter sends their ballot by Nov. 2. This is one of the most important changes sought by Democrats and voting rights advocates challenging voting restrictions across the country. The ruling comes on the heels of another crucial decision in Pennsylvania extending that state’s ballot receipt deadline.

In Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary election, 6,400 mailed absentee ballots were rejected solely because they arrived after the state’s Election Day receipt deadline. Most of those ballots were mailed prior to Election Day or postmarked on Election Day, but did not arrive on time due to postal delays. The post office’s general counsel sent a letter in August to 46 states, including Michigan, warning that they could not guarantee that mail ballots would be delivered on time to count. So far, more than 2.3 million Michigan voters have requested absentee ballots.

These were the key reasons Judge Stephens used to rule that Michigan’s ballot receipt deadline should be extended.

“Plaintiffs presented unrefuted evidence that thousands of voters’ absentee ballots were not counted due to having been received after Election Day in the most recent August 2020 primary election,” Stephens wrote in her order.

In one instance, according to Stephens, a voter sent their ballot to the election clerk’s office in Wyandotte, Michigan, but the mail was routed to Illinois before being delivered after the ballot receipt deadline. That ballot was invalidated solely due to an oddity in the postal service’s processing of mail.

Michigan voters won't have to worry about their mailed absentee ballots (pictured above) being returned late after a judge extended the ballot receipt deadline by 14 days. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Additionally, “The general counsel for the United States Postal Service acknowledged that the law in this state, namely the ballot receipt deadline, posed a significant risk of disenfranchisement because of current mail processing,” the order states.

Part of that is self-inflicted, as Louis DeJoy, a major Republican Party donor appointed as postmaster general in June, implemented efficiency reforms this summer that crippled the Post Office’s delivery schedule.

“[U]nder the current circumstances, enforcement of the deadline for ballot receipt has led, and is likely to lead, to significant instances of failure to count absent ballots,” the order states.

The extension of the ballot receipt deadline is a blow to Trump’s efforts to reduce the number of ballots counted and people voting, particularly among groups that predominantly support Democratic candidates. Evidence shows that late-returned ballots tend to come from Democratic-leaning communities. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by slightly more than 10,000 votes.

The order also overrules the state’s previous limitation on which third parties can help a voter return their absentee ballot and the timeframe in which they can do so. Stephens states that in normal circumstances these limitations would not reach a threshold of impermissible restrictions on the right to vote, but, “These are not, however, ordinary times,” she writes.

Current Michigan law restricts those who may assist a voter in returning their absentee ballots to immediate family members or someone who lives with the voter. The only exception to this restriction is that election clerks may assist voters, but only up until 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, which falls on Oct. 30 this year.

This means that voters who may live alone with no family nearby, perhaps in an assisted living facility, and who could be immunocompromised would have no ability to obtain assistance in returning their ballot after Oct. 30.

“[T]he Court is convinced that the time deadline imposed on the fail-safe option of seeking assistance from the clerk risks leaving too many voters without the opportunity of receiving assistance in returning their ballots,” the order states.

The order eliminates the time limitation on election clerks helping to assist voters return their absentee ballots. 

Stephens does address concerns that either of these changes could lead to an increase in so-called voter fraud.

“The documentary evidence in this case reveals that the incidences of voter fraud and absentee ballot fraud are minimal and that the fears of the same are largely exaggerated,” she writes. “Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that fraud would increase with a larger pool of persons eligible to assist absentee voters.”

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