Benson: Expect delayed results after Tuesday primary election

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Michigan absentee voters in the November 2016 presidential election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Wednesday she anticipates complete election results from the Aug. 4 primary likely won’t be available for one to two days following the election due to an increased number of people voting by mail.

As of Tuesday, nearly 2 million absentee voter ballots had been requested for the primary across the state, with a little more than 900,000 returned. 

In March, local communities processed about 1 million absentee ballot applications and delivered the results the night of the election. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson holds a press conference Thursday at Cadillac Place in Detroit, to announce plans to improve wait times and services at SOS branches across the state.

But if that number doubles ahead of the Tuesday primary, it's unlikely clerks will be able to deliver results that same night, Benson said in a Wednesday press call.

“All data would suggest that we’re talking about at least one or two days before we get the results in most races in our August primary,” Benson said.

The secretary of state anticipated the wait could increase in November unless the Legislature acts to allow some processing of ballots prior the opening of polls in November. 

Under Michigan law, local election officials can't start processing or counting absentee ballots until the morning of the election. Absentee ballots typically take longer to process that in-person ballots because of envelope opening, signature-matching requirements and the slower entry of a voter's choices.

Clerks around the state are encouraging folks who have yet to mail in their absentee ballots for the primary to do so in person by dropping off their ballot envelopes at local drop boxes. Delays with the U.S. Postal Service make it too risky to send a ballot in by mail this close to the primary, Benson said. 

“In all cases, call your local clerk or visit your local clerk with your ballot,” Benson said. 

The nearly 2 million absentee ballots requested as of Tuesday is a big uptick from a week before the August 2016 primary, when only 540,217 had been requested. 

Likewise, the 903,000 ballots returned as of Tuesday outstrips the 307,000 returned a week ahead of the August 2016 primary. 

In the November 2016 general election, 1.27 million voters in Michigan cast their ballot by mail. 

Aside for the expected delayed results, Benson said the state is “ready to go” for the Tuesday primary after efforts to clear inaccurate voter information from the Michigan rolls, promote mail-in voting, and secure and clean precinct locations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But “democracy is a team sport,” Benson added. “While we have diligently carried out the will of the voters…our work has been made more challenging through the inaction of our state legislature.”

The Detroit Democrat urged the Legislature to pass laws that would allow absentee ballots to be counted if postmarked before election day, allow for electronic ballot submission for overseas voters, and allow for some pre-processing of ballots prior to election day. 

Without allowing more time for counting or processing ahead of election day, results are likely to be delayed and “this will create undo pressure and stress for our election workers,” Benson said. 

The GOP-led Legislature largely has opposed legislation that would allow for pre-processing or early counting of absentee ballots, citing concerns over security of the voting process. 

GOP lawmakers also opposed Benson’s decision in May to mail out unsolicited absentee ballot applications to every qualified voter and criticized the issuance of applications to people who have died or long since moved. 

Benson has defended the decision, noting the return of ballot applications marked as deceased or moved would help the state to prune its voting roles. 

But in a Wednesday Senate Elections Committee hearing, legislators asked Benson to provide proof that she had intended the absentee ballot application mailing to work as a way to clear voter rolls. 

They also alleged delays at the Secretary of State's department meant local clerks only recently received large bundles of absentee ballot applications from this spring. 

Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, argued Benson was exceeding her authority by allowing people filing an application online to sign with an electronic signature when he argued the law required a physical signature. 

"We had clerks come out here in June, and they weren't comfortable with the new application," Lucido said.

"I appreciate your interpretation," Benson said. "I believe we're squarely on the right side of the law here in what we're doing to ensure that voters have all the tools at their disposal to request to vote by mail.”