HOW ELECTIONS WORK IN MICHIGAN
Michigan is the largest state in terms of population and geography that administers elections on the local level. Elections in Michigan are administered by 83 county clerks, 280 city clerks, and 1,240 township clerks, and 1,603 county/local election officials, making our system the most decentralized election system in the country. [SOURCE: Michigan Secretary of State, Michigan's Elections System Structure Overview]
The highly decentralized nature of Michigan’s election system comes with unique opportunities and challenges.
Who administers elections?
- The Secretary of State is the “chief election officer” and supervises local election officials as they perform their duties.
- The four-member Board of State Canvassers (2 Republican members and 2 Democratic members) is responsible for approving nominating petitions for candidates for federal/state offices and petition signatures submitted by groups to put proposals on the statewide ballot; approving voting equipment; and certifying the results of most elections (statewide and in districts that cross county lines).
In 2020, Republican Party leaders urged the 2 Republican members of Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers to DENY certifying the 2020 Presidential Election results on purely partisan grounds. Ultimately, the results were certified in a 3-0 vote (SOURCE: Bridge Magazine "Michigan GOP canvassers under pressure to ignore votes, help Trump").
- City and Township Clerks maintain voter registration records and are responsible for administering federal, state, county, and local elections. There are 280 city clerks and 1,240 township clerks in Michigan.
- County Clerks receive and canvass petitions for countywide and district offices that do not cross county lines; accept campaign finance disclosures from local candidates; and train precinct inspectors that help administer Michigan’s Qualified Voter File. There are 83 County Clerks in Michigan.
- The Department of State’s Bureau of Elections assists local election officials with their administrative duties, oversees Michigan’s Qualified Voter File system, monitors legislation that would impact election administration, among other duties.
- County Election Commissions are responsible for furnishing election supplies like ballots for most elections in a county including special elections. The County Clerk is a member of the Commission, as well as the chief judge of probate and the county treasurer. There are 83 County Election Commissions in Michigan.
- Each county has a four-member Board of County Canvassers, which includes 2 Republican members and 2 Democratic members. They are responsible for canvassing the votes cast within the county and certifying local, countywide, and district office elections. There are 83 Boards of County Canvassers in Michigan.
Michigan Republican Party leaders have publicly stated that they are seating Republican County Canvassers who believe in “The Big Lie” and who push election misinformation (Source: Detroit Free Press "Michigan GOP Canvassers Election Misinformation").
- City and Township Election Commissioners establish precincts, assess voting equipment needs, provide election supplies, and appoint precinct inspectors, among other duties.
- City and Township Boards of Canvassers canvass local elections.
Who is eligible to vote in MI elections?
You must be registered to vote in order to cast a ballot in Michigan. You are eligible to register and vote in Michigan if:
- You are a U.S. Citizen
- You have been a resident of a city or township in Michigan for at least 30 days before Election Day
- You are 17.5 years old (or older) and you will be 18 years old (or older) by Election Day
- You are not currently serving a sentence in jail or prison (you can register and vote after you have been released from jail or prison)
Common words and phrases used in elections
- Absentee Ballot: A voter can cast a ballot without going in person on Election Day to their polling place, by using an absentee ballot. In Michigan, any eligible voter can vote by absentee ballot without providing a reason.
- Ballot: In Michigan, every eligible voter has a right to cast a ballot at their polling place on Election Day, or by casting an absentee ballot with no reason required.
- Ballot Proposal: In Michigan, citizens have the constitutional right to engage in direct democracy by initiating statutes or constitutional amendments, or by repealing statutes by referendum, through a ballot proposal. For a ballot proposal to be put to the voters on a general election ballot, the sponsoring group must collect hundreds of thousands of signatures and comply with other requirements mandated by law.
- Clerk: Election administrators who maintain registration records and are responsible for administering federal, state, county, and local elections.
- Political Party: An organization that coordinates candidates who participate in elections for office (i.e., Democratic, Green, Republican). Michigan does not require voters to declare a political party when registering to vote.
- Poll / Polling Place: A designated place where registered voters cast their ballots on Election Day. Each voter has one assigned polling place.
- Voter Registration: Each Michigan citizen must be registered to vote to cast a ballot in local, state, and federal elections.
Voters who are registered at their current address must vote at their polling place on Election Day. Eligible voters may register to vote or update their voter registration on Election Day at their local clerk's office and cast their ballot during the same visit.
When do elections take place?
Federal, state, county, city and township, village, and school elections must take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of May, August, and November.
There are exceptions for:
- Special elections (called by the state legislature)
- Presidential preference primary elections (called by the state legislature every year of a presidential election)
- School districts, intermediate school districts, and community college
Types of elections in Michigan
- General Election: In November of every even year, a General Election is held. During a General Election, voters may vote on the following:
- President (every four years, i.e., 2024, 2028, 2032, and so on)
- Candidates for local, county, state, and federal office
- Nonpartisan candidates, like judges
- Ballot proposals
Voters have the option of voting “straight ticket,” meaning they can select one box to vote for that party’s slate of partisan candidates on the ballot. Voters who vote straight ticket still need to vote separately for nonpartisan candidates and ballot proposals.
- Presidential Primary Election: Every four years (i.e., 2024, 2028, 2032, and so on), voters have the opportunity to vote in a Presidential Primary Election held on the second Tuesday of March. Voters must request either a Democratic or Republican ballot and cannot vote in both party primaries.
- State Primary Election: In August of every even year, a Statewide Primary Election is held. Again, voters must request either a Democratic or Republican ballot and cannot vote in both party primaries. Voters will choose candidates running for local, county, state, and federal offices.
- City Election: City Elections vary by city charter. Voters can learn more about upcoming city elections by searching their sample ballot on the Secretary of State website.
- Special Election: Special Elections can be called under certain circumstances to fill vacancies for local, state, and county offices.
What laws govern Michigan elections?
In Michigan, several laws govern and guide how elections are carried out in the state. These include:
- Public Act 116 of 1954: Michigan election law, a body of state laws that provide statutory authority in the conduct of Michigan elections, guides election officials, candidates, and voters.
- Michigan Constitution: Article 2, Section IV of Michigan’s Constitution sets the foundation of Michigan’s elections. In 2018, this part of the constitution was amended when voters approved Proposal 18-3 (the “Promote the Vote” amendment).
Promote the Vote 2022, a coalition of democracy organizations that includes Voters Not Politicians, is working to amend Michigan’s Constitution through a ballot initiative. Learn more about PTV22 here.
- National Voter Registration Act: Also known as “Motor Voter,” this act requires Michigan to offer people the option to register to vote at motor vehicle offices as well as through mail, public assistance agencies, and military recruitment offices. In Michigan, eligible voters are automatically registered to vote whenever they interact with government agencies, but they may request not to be registered.
The Motor Voter law also prohibits clerks from canceling a voter record if a voter does not participate in elections.
- Other laws, rules, and rulings include: Uninformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE), Help America Vote Act (HAVA), promulgated rules (set forth by the Michigan Secretary of State), Michigan Attorney General opinions, and other federal or state judicial rulings if laws are challenged in the courts.