More than 2.7 million Michigan voters request absentee ballots for Nov. 3 election

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Monday that more than 2.7 million voters across the state have requested mail-in ballots for the Nov. 3 election, a 145% increase from the 2016 presidential race. 

With less than 30 days to go until Election Day, the number of absentee ballots requested far exceeds the 1.1 million cast in 2016 and the 1.6 million that voted absentee in the August primary, Benson said.

So far, 380,000 of those ballots have been returned, she said.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson picks up her Nov. 3 ballot at a satellite office at Detroit's Northwest Activities Center on Oct. 5, 2020

"That's an extraordinary number," Benson told reporters at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit. "It puts us on track to have three ... if not over 3 million ... citizens voting absentee for this fall's election."

Benson appeared in Detroit on Monday to visit one of the 23 satellite voting locations open in the city and to pick up her own election ballot.

The secretary of state also addressed the prospect of armed poll watchers turning up at voting locations in Michigan. While poll watchers are allowed to observe under the law the state won't tolerate intimidation tactics, she warned. 

"If a line is crossed and anyone becomes disruptive . or in any other ways tries to intimidate citizens from casting their vote ... myself and the attorney general and local law enforcement across the state will be prepared to step in and protect voters," Benson said. "No citizen should be worried about voting on Election Day. We'll be there to protect you, your health and safety."

Benson mailed absentee ballot applications to the state's 7.7 million qualified voters in May. She estimates that complete election results won't be tabulated and processed until the Friday after the election.

Benson's Monday visit comes weeks after her office announced it had entered into a partnership with Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey aimed at ensuring the "integrity and accessibility" of the Nov. 3 election in the state's largest city.

Beyond the 23 satellite voting spots in the city, there also are 30 secure drop boxes. 

The state teamed with Detroit after recorded ballot counts in 72% of Detroit's absentee voting precincts didn't match with the number of ballots in the August primary. The out-of-balance totals mean the precincts' results likely couldn't be recounted in a close race under state law and prompted the state Board of State Canvassers to ask Benson to oversee Detroit's general election.

The collaboration called for the hiring of staff, including Chris Thomas, who was Michigan's elections director for more than 30 years, as a senior adviser, and revising protocols for ballot counting and sorting, officials have said. 

The volume of satellite locations in Detroit is up from seven sites for the primary. All the locations are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Matt Friedman, a spokesman for Detroit Votes 2020, noted Winfrey’s office is seeking 10,000 poll workers to assist with the general election at the city's 182 polling locations and 134 absentee counting boards and is getting close to that total. Compensation for poll workers starts at $500 per day. Historically, they had been paid $175 per day, he said.

Staffing levels were viewed as a key problem in Detroit's primary election as some veteran workers didn't show up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has said the city is diverting its workforce to help process an anticipated 200,000 absentee ballots on Nov. 3 and is calling on banks, health systems and mortgage companies to assist as well. 

Ahead of the primary, 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 District and the Detroit Pistons also helped increase volunteer numbers, the clerk's office has said.

Duggan, during a virtual session on voting hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Democratic Governors Association and National Conference of Democratic Mayors, said the city is going to make sure every vote gets counted on Nov. 3.

The mayor said he was "confident" that Detroit would give prompt results "with no drama" on election night. 

On Monday, more than 100 residents had come in to vote at the satellite location by early afternoon and another 75 or so had dropped off ballots.

Detroiter Betty Rice, 78, said she typically mails in her absentee ballot but with mail delays tied to the COVID-19 pandemic she didn't want to take any chances.

“A change has got to come for the better. It can’t stay like it is,” she said. “What’s going on today should make everybody want to get out and vote. You can't sit and do nothing, your vote counts."

Betty Rice, 78, turned in her absentee ballot Monday Oct. 5, 2020, at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit. The spot is one of 23 satellite voting locations in the city for the Nov. 3 election.

Michelle and Robert Horton, 62, visited the activities center Monday for another errand but decided to cast their ballots, too. It was clean, spaced out and simple amid the ongoing worries over COVID-19, they said. 

"It's good, it's safe. Just vote," said Michelle Horton, 56. "If you feel you're scared to come out, ask for a ballot."

Michelle and Robert Horton of Detroit visited the Northwest Activities Center Oct. 5, 2020, for an errand but decided to cast their ballots at a satellite voting location.

Detroit's problems tracking ballots have been in the spotlight amid expected surges in absentee ballots and claims from President Donald Trump that the surges could lead to potential fraud.

In 2016, Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes, his closet margin of victory nationally.

Trump threatened to withhold funding from Michigan in May after Benson mailed absentee ballot applications to all of the state's 7.7 million qualified voters. Trump has called mail-in ballots "very dangerous," saying "there's tremendous fraud involved."

In late September, however, the president encouraged voters to request absentee ballots and to vote early.

Separately, Benson said little Monday about petition signatures submitted Friday by Unlock Michigan, a campaign to limit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The group said Friday that it had submitted 539,000 petition signatures to the state. A battle over the validity of the signatures is anticipated with the group Keep Michigan Safe, which claims Unlock Michigan broke petition circulating rules, calling for a complete review of every signature.

Hours after Unlock Michigan turned in its signatures, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer did not possess the authority to exercise emergency powers under the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act because the law violates the Michigan Constitution. The decision could render the petition drive moot.

Unlock Michigan hopes to put the proposal before the Republican-controlled Legislature by the end of the current session. The governor would have no chance to veto it. The emergency declarations have allowed her to take unilateral actions to combat COVID-19 by closing businesses and requiring masks be worn.

Under state policy, the campaign needed to gather 340,047 valid signatures to advance its proposal to the Legislature. The submission begins the process of state officials determining whether that occurred.

Unlock Michigan says that process should take 60 days, while Benson's office has said it will take about 105 days, potentially pushing a decision into next year when control of the state House could flip after the Nov. 3 election. Benson, like Whitmer, is a Democrat.

"We treat all petitions the same at the Bureau of Elections and that will be no different," Benson said.

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.