Long lines, hour-long waits prompt criticism at Michigan polls

Michigan's new same-day registration rights led to long lines at some clerk's offices, prompting more than hour-long waits and sharp criticism from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Tuesday presented the first statewide election in which voters could use same-day registration and no-reason absentee voting, which were secured through a voter-approved initiative in 2018.

Dozens of Michigan State University students waited more than an hour Tuesday afternoon to register to vote in East Lansing for the state's presidential primary.

The new options have shifted the dynamics of voting in Michigan and led to delays in both processing voters and tallying results.

Nearly 1 million people voted absentee, doubling the number of absentee ballots cast in the 2016 presidential primary and coming close to the number cast in the 2016 general election, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said. 

Additionally, roughly 13,000 individuals registered to vote on Election Day, with more than 6,000 registering after 4:30 p.m.

"Today was a new day for democracy in Michigan,” Benson said. "These historic changes expanded access to our democracy, and we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of voters take advantage of their new rights in this presidential primary.”

Even as the race was called for former Vice President Joe Biden shortly after 9 p.m., individuals remained waiting in line to register to vote and cast their ballots.

Sanders, the Democratic presidential candidate from Vermont, criticized the waits in Michigan and other parts of the country, noting that Democrats have long condemned election day limitations that amount to "voter suppression."

"People should not have to miss a day of work to exercise their right to vote," Sanders said. "This is an outrage. Election officials must address these problems immediately, and if necessary, keep polling places open longer."

The delay in processing voters appeared to be concentrated at city clerks office in college towns, such as Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Kalamazoo, that fielded hundreds of people registering to vote and requesting absentee ballots, said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson.

Ali Abdelsaheb, 20, waited 45 minutes to register and cast his vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders and the DIA Tuesday at the Dearborn City Hall.

Benson warned Michigan residents last week that an influx in absentee ballots, none of which could be counted before polls opened Tuesday, will likely result in delayed results in Michigan.  

"We don’t expect to have a complete picture, meaning all jurisdictions reporting unofficial results, until tomorrow early afternoon," Rollow said Tuesday night. 

Benson said she would work with local clerks to set up satellite locations where people could register to vote so as to avoid bottle necks at clerks' offices. 

"The infrastructure that was set up to handle as many 10, 20, 30 registrations and ballots cast in a day now had to grapple with hundreds of people showing up, many of them showing up after 4:30 p.m. today," she said.

Benson called on state lawmakers to amend statutes to allow local clerks to begin counting absentee ballots sooner, especially considering the possibility that absentee totals could double in November.

“We need more people involved in our Democracy on Election Day," Benson said. "My call is to employers across the state to give their employees the day off this November to serve as poll workers, election workers, throughout the state."

Some municipalities had staffed similar to the November 2016 general election and were able to get their absentee tallies out on time, Rollow said. But others did not staff to those same levels, and places like East Lansing, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo had a steady stream of absentee ballots still coming in.

Dearborn City Hall was jam-packed Tuesday evening with residents trying to same-day register, some waiting as long as two hours, ahead of casting their votes. 

The clerk's office was far too understaffed to accommodate the crowds requiring local activists and state officials had to step in.

“The lack of preparedness and sheer inefficiencies displayed by the Dearborn City Clerk’s office today is abhorrent,” said Hussein Dabajeh, 33, who has helped organize more than two dozen local political campaigns. 

Dabajeh said the Arab American vote was being suppressed and that Dearborn Clerk George Darany, who has served the city for 12 years, was aware there would be high voter turnout. Darany couldn't be reached for comment.

“The clerk has had months to prepare for this presidential primary and failed to be adequately staffed, requiring volunteers to come in and assist the hundreds of people that came in to register and cast their vote,” Dabajeh said.  

Benson and her team went behind the counters of the clerk’s office to help get voters registered. Her team said it was important to come to help the hundreds of new voters, especially in a city like Dearborn with a large community of Arab Americans, immigrants and minorities. 

State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, also visited the polling place and passed out water bottles saying, he hopes “these votes make a difference.”

Dearborn residents wait in a long line to register to vote at City Hall.

A Detroit News employee also witnessed election workers Tuesday morning at St. Matthew’s Church in Detroit complaining about software issues that were delaying voters. When asked about the situation, Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey texted The News that "My IT Dept has not reported any such issues."

A Secretary of State spokeswoman said the department had not heard any reports of "widespread issues" in Detroit. If there was one, it has since been resolved, spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said.

More than 36,000 people had spoiled an absentee ballot prior to Tuesday, many because they wanted to cast a new ballot since their initial preference for president had withdrawn from the race.

Dearborn residents wait in long line to register to vote at city hall.

Before Proposal 3 was approved in 2018, Michigan residents couldn't register to vote within 14 days of an election.

The new option led to lines in Ann Arbor and East Lansing clerk's offices Monday. Those waits increased significantly Tuesday in East Lansing. 

Shortly after noon Tuesday, more than 75 people, many of whom were Michigan State University students, were waiting more than an hour in line to register and vote absentee. 

A vehicle accidentally plowed into a Coloma Township polling station Tuesday, March 10, 2020. No one was injured and they were able to reopen the location shortly afterward, per the Secretary of State’s office.

In other areas of the state, clerks juggled other challenges. 

In Coloma Township, a vehicle accidentally drove into a polling station. No one was injured, according to the Secretary of State's office, and police were able to re-open the location shortly afterward. 

"The driver said she needed to go speak with her insurance company, and then would return to vote," the Secretary of State's office said in a statement.