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How Michigan election officials are preparing for the Aug. 4 primary

July 30, 2020
<p>Volunteers help students during their voting process at the District 13 polling precinct in IM Sports East. The Michigan primary took place March 10, 2020.</p>

Volunteers help students during their voting process at the District 13 polling precinct in IM Sports East. The Michigan primary took place March 10, 2020.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

With Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary election less than a week away, state election officials are preparing for the unique circumstance of holding statewide elections during the COVID-19 pandemic by encouraging absentee voting, calling for legislation to maximize election efficiency and improving election infrastructure and safety protocols.

Absentee voting

As election day nears, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson encouraged voters to send in their absentee ballots to their respective city or township clerk immediately. 

Nearly 2 million voters requested to vote by mail in the primary, which Benson said is about double the amount of absent voter ballots ever processed in any Michigan election.

According to a release from the Secretary of State, 1,431,084 more absent voter ballots were issued seven days before the primary in 2020 than in 2016, and 596,464 more absentee ballots have been returned than in 2016. 

As of July 28, 51.70% of absent voter ballots requested by Ingham County voters have been turned in to their local clerks, according to a release from Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. 

Byrum, too, urged residents to return their ballots immediately. 

“Overall, I am very pleased that so many voters have chosen to vote safely from the comfort of their own homes,” Byrum said in a release. “We have 12,000 more absent voter ballots cast than were cast via absent ballot in total in 2018. We also have 2.5 times as many absent ballots requested that are in the hands of voters compared to the 2018 August Primary Election. My concern, now, is that those voters who have not yet turned in their voted ballots may need to hurry, if they are to arrive in time.”

Byrum urged ballots to be returned either immediately by mail or by placing them in their local clerk’s drop box. Ballots can also be dropped off in-person at a voter’s local clerk’s office.

According to the U.S. Postal Service, absentee ballots qualify as first-class mail, which typically takes one to three days to arrive. However, coronavirus-related delays are expected.

If mailed, Byrum recommends the use of two postage stamps due to the weight of the ballot. 

Voters who have yet to receive an absent voter ballot can request one at a clerk’s office. According to the Secretary of State, voters should prepare to request and vote their ballot at the same time.

While all Michigan voters were mailed an application to vote absentee, Benson said requesting another will not allow a person to have their vote counted twice. 

“When they do that, if a ballot has already been sent to them — and we’ll have a note of that — that already-sent ballot that may be in transit will be invalidated so that it cannot be counted,” Benson said. “The new ballot that they get with their clerk will be their valid ballot that they can then count.” 

Absent voter ballots can be requested, filled out and returned through 4 p.m. on Aug. 3. Those who still need to register can do so and fill out a ballot at their clerk’s office through 8 p.m. on Aug. 4.

Prolonged results

With the large number of absentee ballots requested, Benson said it might take “several more days” to get the final totals for the election.

Precinct totals from in-person voting can be immediately sent to central tabulators to create election results rather quickly, Benson said. Absentee ballots, however, are not so efficient to tabulate. 

“In a year where a record-number of people will be voting my mail, our clerks can’t even open envelopes and arrange ballots for tabulation until the morning of election day when every single one of them is already going to be dealing with several other different issues,” Benson said. “This will create undue pressure and stress for our election officials that is unnecessary, and our officials will have to work through the night, increasing the potential for human error.”

In the March election, when 1 million mail-in ballots were sent via mail, results were able to be delivered soon after the polls closed.

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Now, with twice as many ballots out for the primary, Benson said she is concerned the tabulation process will last at least one or two days longer.

“When you’re dealing with basically the same infrastructure — with some more machines and envelope openers and all the rest — it’s going to take more time unless something changes with the law in the next few days,” Benson said.

Calls for election legislation

Thus, Benson called for legislation giving clerks more time to process ballots before election day. 

“As the pandemic shows no sign of abating and the number of citizens seeking to vote by mail is higher than ever before in our state’s history, continued inaction by lawmakers when we need their support and partnership now more than ever will equate to a dereliction of duty,” Benson said.

Benson also expressed support for legislation that would enable ballots that are postmarked by election day to be counted if they are received in the days after.

Currently, ballots received after election day are not counted, and a late arrival is the most frequent cause of ballot rejection.

Another cause for ballot rejection includes a lack of a signature on the outside of a ballot envelope, which is why Benson said she supports legislation requiring clerks to contact voters if the signature on their ballot envelope is absent or does not match their signature on file.

Benson also expressed support for legislation requiring the electronic return of ballots for military and overseas voters.

New infrastructure improvements

Ahead of the elections this year, the Michigan Secretary of State office has invested in various infrastructure improvements to make the vote collection process easier. 

Among the infrastructure improvements announced by Benson are the distribution of grants to purchase high-speed, ballot-counting machines, automatic letter openers and ballot drop boxes.

According to Byrum, Ingham County received a grant from the Department of State valued at $30,000 for the purchase of a high-speed ballot tabulator. 

“With the number of Absent Voter Ballots being issued this year during the COVID-19 outbreak, it is more important than ever that we are able to train our local clerks and election inspectors on how to use the most up-to-date technology,” Byrum said in a news release.  

Benson also announced the modernization of election systems, including new online tools for voter registration and requesting absent voter ballots.

Safety for in-person voting

While the state is requiring all voting locations to be open for the upcoming elections, safety at these precincts is a top priority.

According to Benson, all election jurisdictions have received new guidelines and training materials to ensure safety and accessibility for all voters.

“We have insured that voters choosing to vote in person will have safe, in-person voting options … for this primary and for November,” Benson said.

To protect election workers and voters, gloves, disposable masks, cleaning products, hand sanitizer and face shields will be provided to voting precincts, Benson said. 

Per an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, voters are not required to wear facial coverings in polling precincts, though masking up is strongly encouraged. 

To minimize crowds in polling places on election day, Benson encouraged voters to vote early either by mail or at their clerk’s office. 

“Let’s say we have 100 voters in a particular area,” Benson said. “If you get, let’s say, 60% of those voters — which is the number we’re tracking — 60 people voting by mail, that’s 60 less people that will be showing up in person on election day. That leaves 40. Now, let’s say we take 20 of them, and they vote early in their clerk’s office, where they go in prior to election day and get their ballot and return it right there. … That removes another 20 from the pool that will be voting on election day. … Therefore, there’s an inherent less possibility for crowding.”

Benson said assuring that voting venues have enough space to hold voters while maintaining social distancing and making sure precincts are adequately staffed will also mitigate the possibility of crowds and large transmissions of COVID-19.

Election staffing

While a large number of election workers will help in preventing large crowds, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many experienced workers from service this year and has led to massive, statewide recruitment efforts.

According to Benson, the state has been able to recruit and train over 5,000 individuals to fill the need for election staffers.

Benson said that while many jurisdictions have their primary application deadlines this week, individuals can still apply to work the November general election.

“If you have an interest, even if it doesn’t come to fruition in August, we are certainly going to need you for November,” Benson said.

Further information about employment at a voting precinct can be found here


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