Expect absentee ballot surge to delay Michigan election results

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Correction: An earlier version had the wrong time when clerks can open and start counting absentee ballots. It is 7 a.m. on Election Day.

Michigan residents should be prepared for delayed results in next month's presidential primaries — but the wait will be shorter than what's anticipated in November's general election, when results in some big cities aren't expected until the following day, experts say. 

An increase in absentee voters and the time it takes to count their votes on Election Day likely will delay official results, even though pending legislation seeks to shorten the process. 

More than 2 million registered voters are expected to cast ballots in the March 10 presidential primary, which would be down from 2016's record 2.5 million voters. The primary features a field of eight active Democratic candidates compared with the Republican field that features two active candidates — President Donald Trump and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. 

Michigan's new no-reason absentee voting option is expected to increase the use of absentee voting but could diminish the state's significance in the March presidential primary.

But election experts are predicting between 5.3 million and 6 million voters in the November election — which would easily surpass the 2008 record of 5.04 million voters. The crush of absentee votes then could delay results from key cities for days. 

More than 666,000 absentee ballots have been distributed statewide so far for the primary, and the number could rise to 850,000 before March 10, said Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing. If reached, that mark would be a more than 180% increase over the 303,000 absentee ballots cast in 2016's primaries.

No-reason absentee voting isn’t expected to necessarily increase turnout in March and November but could shift the percentage of voters who vote absentee. Tabulating absentee ballots can take longer than ballots cast at precincts on Election Day because of the time it takes to remove the ballot from two separate envelopes, verify voter signatures and flatten the folded sheet to put through the tabulator. 

The increased percentage of absentee voters is prompting fear among Michigan’s more than 1,500 local clerks, who anticipate a long night of tabulating the absentee ballots because they aren't allowed to count them before the polls open at 7 a.m. on election day. 

“I can easily believe that three days later we’re still going to be counting ballots in Detroit,” Grebner said about the general election. Still, he said, so long as the count is accurate, “I don’t think it matters.”

The city of Troy expects more than 25,000 of its 60,000 registered voters, or about 42%, will vote absentee in the presidential general election, City Clerk Aileen Dickson last month told a Senate committee. 

"It's going to take more than one day to count them, whether it's Tuesday through Wednesday or Monday through Tuesday," Dickson said. "So the question is which two days do we want?”

Turnout expected to rise

Grebner estimated roughly 2.2 million people would vote in the March 10 primary, short of the record 2.5 million registered voters who cast their ballots in the 2016 presidential primary where both parties had competitive races. 

November turnout could top 6 million, compared with the 4.87 million voters who filled out a ballot in the November 2016 elections, Grebner said. Former state Elections Director Chris Thomas has a more conservative estimate of 5.3 million.

Either estimate would shatter Michigan's general election record of nearly 5.04 million voters set in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama was elected.

But the state is in “uncharted waters” that could increase or decrease the numbers, Grebner said. No-reason absentee voting is just one of the forces that could swing voter participation. 

What is more likely to drive record numbers to the ballot box is jaw-dropping campaign spending in Michigan, high voter motivation and other Proposal 3 changes, such as same-day voter registration. 

“Most of the reason for the increased turnout is going to be the absurdly high level of interest in the election,” Grebner said. “That’s outside of the control of anybody.”

Motivation to vote was 9.5 out of 10 in a Jan. 3-7 poll of 600 likely Michigan voters by Glengariff Group — remaining at historic highs also seen in 2019 surveys.

Absentee ballots have made up about 27% of the overall vote count in past general election cycles, but Thomas estimated it could increase to 40% or 50% depending on how much the option is advertised. 

It’s too early to say whether the March 10 primary turnout will eclipse the record 2.5 million voters, Thomas said. 

“I’m sure there will be quite a surge in Democratic turnout, but whether that exceeds the combined turnout from both parties in 2016, that remains to be seen,” he said. 

Regardless of how many voters participate, the March 10 primaries will serve as test runs for voting rights ushered in through a 2018 initiative known as Proposal 3, which legalized voting rights such as no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration.

“I think the presidential primary is going to be a good test for local clerks to see what the time is for each transaction, how many there are,” Thomas said. “And that will give them the ability to project for the general election.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office didn’t issue estimates for the primary and general election turnouts but projected the number of people voting absentee likely would double in some jurisdictions. 

"It will definitely be an election cycle in which we collect data," said Rep. Julie Calley, the Portland Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee. "While we can make educated guesses, we don’t know what turnout is going to look like.”

Benson and other elected officials are leading the charge for policy changes that would make the expected increase more manageable. 

Protecting secrecy of votes

Legislation seeking to address the deluge of absentee ballots has been introduced by GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate and is supported by House Speaker Lee Chatfield. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has not yet reviewed the legislation, his spokeswoman said. The legislation has not been approved by either chamber, but is awaiting votes from the full House and Senate. 

The Senate Elections Committee last week referred a bill to the full chamber that would allow clerks in a municipality with more than 10,000 voters to perform pre-processing on the absentee ballots starting at 10 a.m. the day before the election. It would involve removing the secrecy envelope, where the actual ballot is contained, from the mailing envelope. 

The legislation also would allow workers to remove the ballot tab. But the ballot could not be removed from the second secrecy ballot until the time of tabulation on Election Day. 

“It’s a great way to give the clerks a way to pre-process,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Ruth Johnson, a Holly Republican and former secretary of state. 

A separate bill referred by the Senate Elections Committee last week would allow absentee vote counters to work in shifts. Under current law, anyone in attendance when voting is started must stay until the polls close.

The first shift would be required to stay until polls close to address a concern some lawmakers have raised about a push to tabulate absentee ballots prior to Election Day: What would stop election workers privy to early results from alerting party operatives of preliminary developments?

Election workers would be banned from discussing the results, similar to a juror being prohibited from discussing a case outside the courtroom during a trial, Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton told senators last month. 

"How is that not transferable to our election process?" Barton said.

Johnson assured lawmakers her bill would preserve the integrity and secrecy of early results while still relieving poll workers from marathon counting sessions that sometimes last into the early hours of Wednesday morning.

"You cannot shift workers until after the polls are closed so somebody can’t go out and say, 'Hurry and get 10 more votes for somebody,'" Johnson said last month.

Separate House 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 Calley is awaiting a House floor vote. 

Another bill in the House Ways and Means Committee, sponsored by Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, would allow precincts to resize to accommodate the expected decrease of in-person voters. 

"This would give them the option to do so; it's not a mandate," Calley said. "It would also allow clerks to shift more election workers to an absentee voter counting board.”

That legislation will make a small difference, but stops short of actually tabulating absentee ballots ahead of election day, as other states have done, former Elections Director Thomas said. 

“It’s something, but it’s not much,” Thomas said. “It’s not going to save significant amount of time.”

In August 2019, Rochester Hills timed two absentee voter counting boards as they processed 2,000 ballots, about 14% of the 14,000 voters currently on the city's permanent absentee voter list. It took the committee five hours to process the ballots. Clerks, Barton said, need more time before or after Election Day. 

"The ability to begin processing absentee ballots days before the election is not new in our country," Barton told senators. "It is only new to Michigan. Many states process ballots prior to Election Day and many states also feed ballots into the scanner before Election Day.”