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Michigan elections director warns absentee surge could delay results

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan isn’t likely to face the same days-long wait for primary results as Iowa, but results may still be slower than usual given the increase in absentee voters, Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater told lawmakers Wednesday. 

Michigan’s March 10 primary will not include caucuses nor will it involve any apps, let alone ones without certification or testing, Brater told a joint House and Senate Oversight committee.

But the problems in Iowa do warrant some consideration as they relate to Michigan’s expected increase in absentee voters, he said. 

Voters cast their ballots on Nov. 6, 2018.

“We need to be prepared for the possibility that we may not get all of our results in even until early in the morning,” Brater said. 

Clerks around Michigan have expressed concern that results from the March 10 primary could be delayed because of the increase in absentee voters and the time it takes to open and scan each of the absentee ballots the day of the election. 

Some have advocated for early counting of the ballots. Legislation currently before the House and Senate would allow clerks to at least remove the absentee ballot from its outside sleeve, but not the secrecy envelope, ahead of Election Day.

“The idea of allowing clerks to start processing ballots earlier would help,” Brater said. But he noted any changes would have to be paired with systems to ensure the security of those votes. 

Janice Winfrey, the clerk in Michigan’s largest city, Detroit, said she expects to have to count more than 80,000 absentee ballots for the November election. The total could even reach higher than 100,000 absentee ballots, Winfrey said. 

If state lawmakers don’t provide election workers more time to count absentee ballots, she may not be able to have results until the early morning hours of the day after the election, Winfrey said. She wants lawmakers to allow her office to begin counting ballots on at least Oct. 30, the Friday before the Nov. 3 election. 

“For me it’s unacceptable to not to be able to get those election results out before the 11 o-clock news,” Winfrey said in an interview.

Legislation working through committees include a bill that would allow clerks to perform pre-processing on the absentee ballots by removing the secrecy envelope, where the actual ballot is contained, from the mailing envelope. The bill from former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, has been referred to the Elections Committee, which Johnson chairs. 

Separate legislation would allow small municipalities to enter an agreement with the county clerk or a larger jurisdiction to form a absent voting board that would process absentee ballots. The legislation from Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, is waiting for a vote on the House floor.  

While the pre-processing bill would help larger counties get a head start on absentee ballot processing, the second bill would help smaller communities with limited resources to process absentee ballots more efficiently, said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck. 

The legislation would help small towns like Ferrysburg in Ottawa County, where approximately 900 of the 2,500 registered voters voted absentee in 2016, said Roebuck. 

“Right now, they’re counting them in between voters coming in,” Roebuck said. “Not only is that a logistical issue for election workers, but it’s a perception issue” to have workers reviewing completed ballots inside the precinct.