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Michigan clerks 'prepared for unknown' as absentee ballots mount in primary

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Clerks across Michigan are preparing for in-person voting Tuesday that will look drastically different while juggling a record high absentee ballot haul that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said could delay results by one to two days. 

Nearly 2 million absentee ballots had been issued to Michigan primary voters through last Tuesday, and 903,000 had been returned to clerks. The initial number far exceeds that for August 2016, when 484,094 people voted by absentee. Another 907,100 individuals voted in person. 

An election worker hands an absentee ballot to a voter at a satellite voting location on the campus of Wayne County Community College NW district, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Detroit.

The absentee tally for the upcoming Tuesday primary is expected to eclipse the 1.27 million who voted absentee in the November 2016 election, which saw a total of 4.87 million ballots cast. 

Benson has touted the absentee numbers as a triumph for democracy amid the unparalleled challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. But it also has added to the workloads of clerks throughout the state.

Election officials in larger cities have prepared their absentee ballot counting boards to tally ballots from the opening of polls at 7 a.m. Tuesday through the night and into the next morning. 

But the slog toward Election Day started weeks earlier. Clerks have scrambled to recruit and train new volunteers after some backed out over COVID-19 concerns, and officials outfitted polling locations and workers with personal protective equipment. 

Still, a lingering feeling of uncertainty surrounds Tuesday's primary election for many clerks. 

“You have to be prepared for the unknown,” Warren City Clerk Sonja Djurovic Buffa said. “We’re all doing the best that we can.”

The increased precautions for in-person voting, higher absentee ballot counts and new equipment to help count absentee ballots in some precincts have added to the stress of what was already going to be a historic election, said Chris Thomas, director of Michigan's Bureau of Elections from 1981 to 2017. 

"It's just like everything else we do today," Thomas said. "It’s going to take patience, and things may take a little longer, but anyone interested in voting will be able to.

"... Welcome to the new world.”

Clerks optimistic on timely results

Despite Benson’s warning, several clerks interviewed by The Detroit News were optimistic about the timely processing of their absentee ballots. Most were more concerned about November’s election — one that could draw up to 3 million absentee voters by Benson’s estimates. 

For now, clerks are looking at absentee hauls that are even with or slightly surpass the absentee ballots processed in the November 2016 presidential election. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson talks about the Aug. 4 primary.

The August election is “sort of the on-ramp for November,” said Justin Roebuck, a clerk for Ottawa County, where roughly 61,000 absentee ballots had been issued and 35,385 returned through Friday — more than double the nearly 14,400 absentee ballots issued in August 2016.

With the ballots received as of Friday, the election turnout in Ottawa County already stands at 17% compared with 22% overall turnout in August 2016.

Clerks had been preparing for increased absentee ballots for the primary since Proposal 3 passed in 2018. It allowed for no-reason absentee voting and a slew of other voting rights. But Benson’s mailing of absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in May accelerated that growth in use.

“I think a lot of voters didn’t know that was an option until they were given an application,” Roebuck said. 

In Detroit, the city clerk issued roughly 90,000 ballots and, as of Saturday, received nearly 58,000 back, a large uptick from years prior.

“It’s up, absolutely a significant increase,” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said. “This is a primary that we usually don’t get many participants in.”

Even accounting for an anticipated 20% turnout Tuesday — an increase from the 13% participation in August 2016 — Winfrey estimated tabulations could be completed sooner than usual.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey addresses the media at a satellite voting location on the campus of Wayne County Community College NW district, Friday, July 31, 2020 in Detroit.

August may foreshadow November

In Warren, roughly 24,750 absentee ballots were issued and nearly 14,400 returned as of Friday. That’s double the nearly 7,000 absentee ballots returned ahead of the August 2016 primary, Buffa said. 

In Rochester Hills, officials issued 20,689 absentee ballots and had received 10,353 back through Friday. Clerk Tina Barton said the office is equipped to handle the primary ballots in a timely manner, but she hopes legislators will make changes by November that would allow clerks to start processing absentee ballots ahead of the election. 

“We’re going to find ourselves in trouble if the Legislature does not do anything about that,” Barton said. 

In Grand Rapids, 15,000 people, or 8% of the city’s registered voters, showed up to the polls for the primary four years ago. As of Friday, the city had mailed out 35,350 absentee ballots and received back 20,599. 

“After Proposal 3 passed, we kind of had an idea of how things would go,” Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp said. “Now, we don’t know what to expect.”

St. Clair County Clerk Jay DeBoyer worried the increase in absentee ballots will result in more spoiled ballots cast by people who mistakenly vote for both parties in an open primary in which voters must decide to vote in all Republican or all Democratic races. While someone voting in-person could discard a spoiled ballot and cast a new one, the option isn’t available to absentee voters. 

“I think you’re going to see an uptick in those kinds of ballots,” DeBoyer said.

The timely processing of ballots will depend on how many are actually returned, the clerks said. Through Friday, the rate of return appeared to range between 50% and 60%.

“Quite a few people called and said they wanted to vote at the polls, but they requested an application just in case polls were closed,” Warren's Buffa said. 

Warren City Clerk Sonja Djurovic Buffa sanitizes the ExpressVote machine at the Warren City Hall, Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Warren.

New workers, more protection

In the past weeks, clerks have held virtual and in-person training for new volunteers after swaths of longstanding volunteers bowed out in light of the coronavirus. 

The average age of an election worker in Rochester Hills is 74, an age that falls squarely within the coronavirus high-risk category, Barton said. 

Some workers declined to come back after hearing some voters wouldn’t be wearing masks, she said. Others left because they couldn’t or wouldn’t wear a mask while working. 

“We’ve had to be making huge recruitment efforts to try and hire new workers,” Barton said. 

In Detroit, the city offered incentives to volunteer workers. Efforts by the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, Wayne County Community College and the Detroit Pistons helped to increase volunteer numbers, according to the clerk's office. 

“It’s a help that we’ve needed,” Winfrey said. “Detroit was a hot spot, and people are very, very apprehensive of coming out among crowds of people. I don’t blame them, but it’s our reality, and we have to serve.’

Virgil Anderson of Detroit fills out his absentee ballot at a satellite voting location on the campus of Wayne County Community College NW district, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Detroit.

Most local clerks received bundles of personal protection equipment from Benson last month in preparation for the primary. Plexiglass has been installed, voting booths spaced out, lines will be spaced with tape markers or line monitors and all surfaces will be disinfected often, clerks said. 

Clerks should take full stock of the challenges and triumphs Tuesday to prepare for the general election in November when the stakes will be higher and the quantity larger, said Thomas, the former Michigan elections director.  

"This is an opportunity for clerks to get a real handle on dealing with that volume," he said. 


Election reminders

  • This close to the primary, individuals hoping to vote by mail should not mail in their ballots. Instead, they can be dropped off at an individual’s local clerk’s office or the dropbox, if available, in a voter’s jurisdiction. A list of dropbox locations is available here.
  • Absentee ballots must be returned before 8 p.m. Tuesday to be counted. The voter’s signature must be on the outside envelope and match the voter’s signature on file. 
  • Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. for in-person voting.
  • Bring a photo ID or, lacking one, be prepared to sign an affidavit verifying your identity. 
  • In many precincts, individuals voting in person should be prepared for social distancing in line, spaced voting booths, frequent disinfecting and other safety protocols. 
  • Wearing a mask at the voting precincts is not required by law but is recommended.
  • Unregistered voters are allowed to register before or on Election Day at their local clerk’s office with proof of residency. An individual registering the day of the election will be issued an absentee ballot to be filled out at the clerk’s office.
  • Since Tuesday is a primary election, individuals voting by mail or in-person can mark selections for only one party.  Ballots with a crossover vote — a ballot in which the voter chooses candidates from both parties — will not be counted.