Absentee voting influx sparks fear of delayed election results

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Local officials bracing for an influx of absentee voters are urging Michigan lawmakers to give clerks more time to process mail-in ballots and avoid logjams that could delay election night reporting results. 

But a top lawmaker in Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is opposing calls to allow early processing, arguing the state must focus on security rather than speed, even if it means full results are not reported until the day after an election.   

The issue is heating up because Michigan voters last fall approved a new no-reason absentee voting law that no longer requires a valid excuse to cast a ballot by mail.

More than 53 percent of Michigan voters in the Aug. 6 election cast an absentee ballot.

Early returns suggest it will be a popular option. More than 53% of voters in last month’s local primaries cast an absentee ballot, up nearly 12 percentage points over a similar election in 2017. Rates topped 70% in some local jurisdictions.

The load was manageable in a low-turnout off-year election with 120,303 absentee voters. But local officials fear they'll be overwhelmed by millions of votes in next year’s presidential primary and general elections because counting absentee ballots takes more time, requiring precinct workers to open and process them by hand.

"We anticipate there will be more and more absentee ballots moving forward through each election as people learn and realize how easy it is," said Mt. Pleasant Clerk Jeremy Howard, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.  "We see that increasing — potentially even exponentially."

The Wayne County Board of Canvasser’s last month unanimously adopted a resolution asking state lawmakers to allow absentee ballot tabulation to start 72 hours before an election but prohibit generating any totals until polls close.

That would allow clerks to get a head start on absentee processing, which could be especially helpful in major cities like Detroit with the largest numbers of voters, said Jonathan Kinloch, a Democrat who chairs the Wayne County board. 

“We’re going to have to change Michigan election law to allow for early tabulation if we want to get election results in a timely fashion,” Kinloch said, noting complaints over past reporting delays on election night.

Current Michigan law does not allow clerks to begin processing absentee ballots until Election Day. Officials are debating possible solutions to the potential logjam.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson “is standing with local clerks” and calling for legislation that “gives clerks the option of more time to count ballots,” said spokesman Shawn Starkey.

The Detroit Democrat “is open to different approaches for making this happen as long they ensure ballots are counted accurately, effectively and efficiently with security provisions in place and transparency protections,” Starkey said.

Early counting obstacle

County and municipal clerk organizations have met with lawmakers to discuss the issue but have not endorsed any specific remedy, said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

More than 68% of Ingham County voters in the August primary cast their ballots absentee, she said, and more than 76% did so in the city of Lansing.

“So that’s a strong indicator we’re going to see significantly more absentee ballots” in future elections, Byrum said. “The opening and processing takes a very long time, and then feeding them into the tabulator takes a very long time. And it’ll take a very long time on an even-year August or November election.”

Byrum personally would like to give municipal clerks the ability to begin processing ballots the Monday before a Tuesday election. Clerks could open envelopes and begin feeding ballots into a tabulator but program the machine to not compute any totals until polls close, she said.

“That is a programmable thing.”

Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican who served as secretary of state from 2011 through 2018 and now chairs the Senate Elections Committee, opposes any sort of early processing options and could block future legislation. 

“I feel strongly that it weakens integrity and increases the opportunity for cheating or manipulating our elections,” she said.

Johnson told The Detroit News she understands local clerks are concerned by the potential volume of absentee ballots because of Proposal 3, which she had opposed.

“But this is too important to get it wrong,” she said. “I’ve always said it’s better to be accurate and to have integrity than to be fast. If we have to wait a few hours or even the next day to have results… accuracy and integrity should be the driving force, not convenience.”

State Rep. Julie Calley, a Portland Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, said she wants to exhaust all options to speed up Election Day counts before considering other approaches.

One possible solution, she said, is providing clerks with additional equipment, such as high-speed tabulators that could count larger numbers of ballots on Election Day. But “the fiscal burden may be prohibitive,” she acknowledged.

Absentee counting boards

Michigan law allows local governments to establish absent voter counting boards for each precinct that are dedicated to processing mail-in ballots. Calley said she expects more clerks to activate those boards.

Lawmakers in April approved $2.5 million in supplemental funding for Benson’s office to implement Proposal 3, including $1 million for absentee voter counting board tabulators.The state spent $10 million to help locals buy new tabulators ahead of 2018.

Calley has had meetings with election clerks and expects the conversations to continue. While she’s still taking in information, the second-term lawmaker said a “one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”

The state could put security measures in place to alleviate concerns over early processing or tabulation, Mount Pleasant's Howard said.

“Clerks in general, in my opinion, are very conscientious of security and chain of custody and that kind of thing, so I think could put a number of procedures in place,” he said.

Some local clerks have also floated the possibility of the state allowing multiple jurisdictions to share absent voter counting boards, perhaps centralizing tabulation at the county level.

“Unfortunately, I think a lot of these things are not going to be able to get through the Legislature fast enough to have a ton of effect in 2020,” Howard said. “It’s our opinion we need to have these conversations regardless of when they go into effect.”

How other states compare

Michigan is one of 28 states that allow voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse, and some allow more flexible processing rules for clerks.

In Maine, for instance, municipalities can choose to process absentee ballots up to three days before an election, but the state prohibits actual vote counting or election results until after polls have closed.

Delaware allows local elections officials to begin opening absentee ballots the Friday before a Tuesday election but requires them to do so in a public meeting so challengers can observe the process.

If Michigan does allow early counting, it should take additional steps to ensure early vote totals are not computed or released, Byrum said, suggesting jury-like sequestration for precinct workers and election inspectors.

But the potential bottlenecks that could be created by an absentee influx could cause the public to “start questioning the integrity of our elections because the results aren’t out on election night or the early hours of the day after an election,” she said.

“It takes so long to tabulate," Byrum said. "People fail to appreciate how long it takes to tabulate.”