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Pandemic, new absentee voting rules challenge Michigan clerks

Anna Liz Nichols
The Associated Press/ Report For America

Lansing – Michigan county and municipal clerks are finding it challenging to meet the needs of voters amid the coronavirus pandemic and following changes in 2018 when state voters approved of same-day voter registration and no-reason absentee voting.

The Secretary of State’s Office reported this week that over 1.5 million requests for absentee ballots had been filled out and returned heading to the Aug. 4 primary, more than three-and-a-half times the number than at the same time in 2016.

Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton said she has had to restructure how her city handles voting, moving 16 of the 32 precincts because they were in senior facilities where the health risk was too great. Now all 32 precincts are sharing space with schools.

Angela Beauchamp fills out an absentee ballot May 5 at City Hall in Garden City.

“Our last election, the March presidential primary, the governor declared the state of emergency actually that night … We were fortunate to have made it through the presidential primary kind of unscathed,” Barton said. “We are still on edge a little bit to see what could even possibly change in the next three weeks, due to the fact that numbers are starting to increase with COVID cases.”

Barton said she and other clerks need more time to process absentee ballots safely. Legislation that would allow clerk’s offices start processing ballots the day before the election remain on hold in the Republican-led Legislature.

She said she is also struggling to get the legal minimum of three workers in each precinct. She usually would have eight to 10 for a total of over 300 workers. The average election day worker in Michigan is about 74 years old, placing them in a category of the state population that is at high risk of serious complications due to COVID-19 so many backing out this year.

Barton said she is trying to appeal to a sense of duty, encouraging companies to offer a volunteer services day where employees can help support the election and be paid their day’s wages. She is also appealing to college professors to give students extra credit for working at precincts.

Though Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced in June that over 2,000 workers had been recruited for the August and November elections, she said there has been and will be enormous challenges for those on the ground on Election Day amid the pandemic.

“We’re doing everything we can to really quickly adjust to a lot of new things for our clerks and our voters,” Benson said. “At a time when there’s a lot of challenges and crises in the health sector, in the economic sector, education sector, this is a time of great uncertainty on many levels, and a time of great challenge.”

Benson, a Democrat, said partisan bickering and politically driven misinformation has made the rapid use and need for absentee voting during the pandemic even more difficult.

In May, when Benson announced absentee ballot applications would be mailed to all 7.7 million registered voters, President Donald Trump incorrectly tweeted Benson was sending the ballots themselves as an act of voter fraud, saying he would ask for funding for Michigan to be withheld during the pandemic because of the actions of the “rogue secretary of state.”

Benson said she understands confusion about absentee ballots, but intentional efforts to keep people from voting by spreading false information about absentee ballots or when elections days are can’t be tolerated.

“I believe in democracy and election law, that’s been my life’s work,” Benson said. “Sometimes it’s still confusing to me that people want to put out false information about what I’m doing.”

Barton, a Republican, said the relationship between Benson and the Senate Elections Committee, which is visibly contentious, is concerning for clerks, saying it could cloud progress for the state to adopt the changes necessary to ensure safe and effective elections.

“I’m concerned that on the backs of clerks and on the backs of election workers is going to rest on Election Day the responsibility to process thousands and thousands of absentee ballots and keep precincts open,” she said. “We’re being tasked with something that to me is a recipe for failure, a recipe for disaster and a recipe for a breakdown in the process. While we fuss over political ideals and political opinions.”

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Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.”