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Whitmer, Benson ask state employees to take Tuesday off to help with election

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson are encouraging state employees to take Tuesday off to help with the primary election. 

The Thursday email to state employees asked them to consider taking a vacation day  or annual leave Tuesday and encouraged managers to approve the requests because of a shortage of election workers due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a copy obtained by The Detroit News. 

"A couple hundred" state employees signed up to work during the election within 24 hours of receiving the email, said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson. Those workers can do virtual training through Benson's office, but may be required to do additional training by the jurisdiction with which they're eventually placed, Rollow said. 

Benson's office has been recruiting election workers to help in multiple jurisdictions throughout the year to fill shortages during the pandemic. 

"We have placed many for Tuesday, but with what we expect for November, we will likely need even more," Rollow said. 

The request comes as clerks prepare for an increased number of absentee ballots, in some cases double or triple what communities usually process in a primary. Typically, absentee ballots take longer to process than an in-person ballot because of the time it takes to check the signature on the envelope, open the envelope and feed it through a tabulator. 

Clerks and Benson have urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow them to at least do some of absentee ballot processing earlier than the opening of polls at 7 a.m. Tuesday. But the GOP-led Legislature has voiced concerns that the early processing would compromise the integrity of those ballots. 

In their email, Benson and Whitmer noted that the coronavirus pandemic had caused many election workers to decline to work since the majority of them are of an age considered high risk for the coronavirus. 

"... With the August 4 primary elections upon us and the November general election around the corner, now more than ever election workers are needed to serve on the front lines of our democracy," Whitmer and Benson wrote. 

Election workers are usually paid by the community in which they volunteer, and Whitmer encouraged state employees who work the elections to report the supplemental income to the Michigan Civil Service Commission. 

"Democracy must march on through the pandemic, and it needs election workers to do so," the letter said. 

Requests for comment to the Whitmer administration and the state Civil Service Commission were not immediately returned Sunday. 

Several city and county clerks contacted by The News last week reported having trained dozens of new volunteers to replace those worried about the possibility of COVID-19 exposure at the polls. 

Detroit offered incentives to city employees, some of whom were laid off during the pandemic, to help at the polls. Efforts by the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, Wayne County Community College and the Detroit Pistons helped to increase volunteer numbers, according to the Clerk's Office. 

“It’s a help that we’ve needed,” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said last week. “Detroit was a hot spot, and people are very, very apprehensive of coming out among crowds of people. I don’t blame them, but it’s our reality, and we have to serve.’

Most local clerks received bundles of personal protection equipment from Benson last month in preparation for the primary. Plexiglas has been installed, voting booths spaced out, lines will be spaced with tape markers or line monitors and all surfaces will be disinfected often, clerks said. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com