Michigan's top election official warns November results could be delayed without changes

DETROIT (Reuters) - Thousands of Michigan voters might be disenfranchised and the country could wait days for the November presidential election results unless the battleground 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 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 postmarked on-time but arriving 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.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday sent a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy calling for the reversal of the Postal Service’s recent “counterproductive and unacceptable” cuts.

“We believe these changes, made during the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, now threaten the timely delivery of mail - including medicines for seniors, paychecks for workers, and absentee ballots for voters - that is essential to millions of Americans,” they wrote.

Michigan, where Trump narrowly beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, is critical to his November re-election effort, but he has been trailing Biden in recent opinion polls there.

Democrats have expressed concern the president, who has declined to say whether he would accept the election outcome if he loses, could try to cast doubt on its legitimacy, especially if results take days to finalize.

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.

Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown