Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and state Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson announced the project Wednesday, hailing it as an "historic" way to help more people vote early.
Starting Wednesday, Detroit residents can visit a website — created by the Democratic Party — and fill out an absentee ballot application, which will be transmitted electronically to the clerk's office, which until now has accepted such requests by mail, fax or in person.
Because election officials must verify an absentee voter applicant's signature with their signature on file, the technology initially is limited to touch-screen mobile devices, but could be available on desktop computers later.
"We're going to use every tool and technology at our disposal to make sure people have access to the ballot. This effort is one of them," Johnson told The Associated Press before an afternoon announcement in Detroit. "Smartphones have become an integral part of people's lives."
He said other cities soon will begin accepting online absentee-ballot applications, but declined to name them until an official announcement planned for next week.
Gisgie Gendreau, spokeswoman for Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, said the agency did not have an opportunity to review the project.
"It's premature for us to comment until our Bureau of Elections has a chance to determine whether it meets election law," she said.
The project could help the party in its effort to boost turnout this November among Democrats — especially younger voters, women and African-Americans — who vote in presidential elections but not off-year races. Johnson has estimated that nearly 1 million Democrats failed to vote in 2010 when Republicans took control of state government.
City and township clerks process absentee ballot requests in Michigan. Detroit — with more than a half-million registered voters — is the largest city to administer elections.
Winfrey said making it easier to vote absentee makes sense because its popularity is on the rise. Roughly 27 percent of the votes cast in 2012 were absentee ballots, up from about 16 percent a decade earlier.
"This is a proud day for Detroit and a historic day for Michigan," Winfrey said in a prepared statement.
Voters casting an absentee ballot in Michigan must be 60 or older, be out of town when the polls are open or meet other criteria.
Johnson said the party will make the website to any local clerk who wants it. Applications submitted online will go straight to the clerk and "not be held by us in any way, shape or form," he said.
Over the years, Republican lawmakers have resisted legislation to allow voters to cast absentee ballots without needing to meet specific criteria.
When asked Wednesday about the online absentee-ballot project, Michigan Republican Party spokesman Darren Littell said, "the more people who participate in the process the better" because GOP candidates can point voters to their record — an improving economy, decreased unemployment and population gains.