After record absentee ballots, Michigan looks ahead to higher November load

A record 1.6 million people voted by mail Tuesday in an election that many assume will be a scaled down model of what's to come in November's presidential election.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office couldn't provide a complete tally of votes Wednesday evening. But the 1.6 million absentees — which outstripped the 1.27 million in the November 2016 presidential election — plus the still unknown in-person tally are flirting with Michigan's primary record of 2.2 million votes, set in 2018.

Election workers Patricia Adams, Phillip Phillip and Bob Morton work on counting absentee voter ballots at the Allen Park municipal offices in Allen Park, Michigan on August 4, 2020.

The increase in numbers was manageable for some communities, but acted as a millstone for others as they worked to process ballots in a timely manner with limited staffing due to COVID-19.

As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, four counties still were tabulating their results. Many of the state's congressional races weren't called until Wednesday morning.

In addition to delayed results, the state also wrestled to supplement jurisdictions across Michigan with election workers to replace last-minute cancellations. 

In Detroit, some voters complained they hadn't been told about changes to their polling locations. The state stepped in Monday, directing the city to place signs directing people to the new locations.

Benson's office recruited 6,500 election workers throughout the state ahead of the Tuesday primary and kept a reserve of 200 for last-minute emergencies. About 80 of the reserves were deployed Tuesday to Detroit, Flint and some out-state counties. 

"What we’ve seen today is a system that’s essentially met its limits," said Benson, who has urged the Legislature to enact laws to allow for more efficient processing of absentee ballots ahead of November. 

"None of us want to be the last state in November to report our results," she said.

A record number of voters cast their ballots from the comfort of their homes, while others voted at polling locations with short lines and extra precautions to protect public health.

Turnout records set

Benson considered the overall primary a success. A record number of voters cast their ballots from the comfort of their homes, while others voted at polling locations with short lines and extra precautions to protect public health. 

The state also registered 3,600 people Tuesday who were able to cast a ballot in the primary. The number is down from the March 10 primary, whose record 13,000 same-day registrations were driven in part by students on college campuses taking advantage of their new right to same-day registration. 

Same day registration and no-reason absentee ballots were among the new rights enshrined when voters approved Proposal 3 in 2018. 

"All of these options, making sure they’re available and voters are aware of them, are key to our success in November and were key to our success today," Benson said. 

Clerks in Wayne County and the city of Detroit did not return calls for comment. 

Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said the election division there saw a new record turnout of 37% of the county's registered voters. The new high is up from August of 2018, when turnout was 35%, she said.

"We had a lot of interesting races on every level," Brown said. "From local to county to federal races, there were races that were pulling voters out.”

Another first, Brown said, was the addition of a county absentee voter counting board. Under a new state law, the county is permitted to collaborate with local municipalities to process and tabulate absentee ballots. Of the 52 cities and townships in Oakland County, 16 signed contracts to participate. 

The partnership allowed for more than 50,000 absentee ballots from 138 precincts to be tabulated together Tuesday afternoon and posted a minute after the polls officially closed, she said.

Overall, the county received its final unofficial results just after 10 a.m. Wednesday. Brown said several communities, including Troy, Southfield and Waterford Township, were still submitting some absentee results until that time. 

The county hired about 150 workers to assist with the primary. 

“We were prepared without knowing what the influx was going to be,” Brown said. “Things ran relatively smoothly, despite the pandemic.”

The county’s election page website notes 369,575 ballots were cast and there are 995,114 registered voters. 

Macomb County Clerk Fred Miller said the county’s turnout of 32.4% marks a substantial increase from the August primary in 2016. In that election, turnout was 19%.

Macomb County’s election staff, Miller said, has worked around the clock since Tuesday morning to process ballots and get results out. The staff posted final unofficial totals by 7 a.m. Wednesday, he said. 

Overall, 213,903 voters cast ballots in the August race. Of those, 30% turned up in person at the polls Tuesday and 70% voted absentee.

“We knew that the absentee voter numbers were going to be big. We had 184,000 requests the weekend before Election Day,” said Miller, noting the August 2016 primary had 117,000 voters total between in-person and absentee.

Michigan's “decentralized election system” is “inefficient by nature” and that’s a good thing, Miller said.

“It’s decentralized and involves so many people that in its inherent inefficiencies it builds in a level of security,” he said.

The county did have issues with recruiting poll workers and a reduced number of older, longtime poll workers this cycle, Miller said. Despite that, he said, “we can run safe and accurate and fair and secure elections even in the midst of all these challenges.”

Miller did not have any reports of inaccessibility or delays at any of the nearly 300 polling spots around Macomb County.

“We knew there was going to be a crush of absentee ballots and it came,” he said. “It did take us longer. A lot of lessons were learned with this August primary that are going to inform our preparations for November.”

Voters and polling workers at Crissman Elementary in Shelby Township use social distancing and plexiglass barriers at the 1st Precinct on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

Problems in Motown

The problems in Tuesday's primary started early, when three polling locations in Detroit were delayed from opening for at least an hour because of last minute cancellations of election workers. 

The problems weren't limited to the state's largest city though. Shortages also were experienced in Flint, Benzie County, Lake County and Jackson County, prompting to state to send 80 workers in all to the various locations, 50 alone for Detroit. 

Benson said the state needs to "over-recruit" ahead of the November election and plans to evaluate data gathered during Tuesday's primary to better anticipate problems in November. 

Mario Morrow, a Detroit-based political analyst and consultant, said it was a sleepless night Tuesday as he continued to refresh election websites for results.

"There was a 2.5-hour shutdown on Wayne County's website with no real movement and you could tell because you'd see the 0% under (absentee voter) section," Morrow said Wednesday. "We knew the absentee was going to be much higher than in-person polling and turned out to be double the amount."

"That means the candidates who didn't do direct mailing, door knockers, radio or TV, you could see that they were hurt by the AV vote," he added. 

Morrow also criticized the problems in Detroit, which he said caused confusion among voters searching for their new polling locations.

"Janice Winfrey notified people by mail and due to a lack of workers, things didn't go as smoothly as they hoped," he said. "Because the mail is slow, I’m sure some people got their letters today."

Clare Allenson, civic engagement director for Michigan League of Conservation Voters, worked as a poll worker in Detroit. The polling location, typically at Western High School, was changed and about 10% of voters had to sign affidavits to vote in person because their absentee ballots never arrived in the mail, she said

“We need to have better communication ahead of time so people can plan and vote,” Allenson said.

Election officials have handled more than 1 million absentee ballots before and they need to be prepared for November, said Sharon Dolente, voting rights strategist for the ACLU of Michigan. They likely need more staffing to handle those ballots and better training, she said.

“Election officials have to plan now to significantly increase their ability to handle twice as many ballots as they handled in this primary,” Dolente said. “And they have to plan now.”

At a press conference Wednesday organized by the ACLU of Michigan, Aghogho Edevbie said most polling locations eventually opened Tuesday but there “were barely enough poll workers to make it work,” especially in Detroit and Flint.

“If we don’t fix these things in November, we’re going to have a very bad situation that could turn into a disaster,” said Edevbie, Michigan state director of All Voting is Local, an advocacy group that works to eliminate voting barriers.

Voters take their time in the voting booth at Crissman Elementary School in Shelby Township's 2nd precinct on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

Legislative fix

Soon after polls closed Tuesday, Benson urged lawmakers to consider changes to state law that would allow the early processing of absentee ballots and that would count absentee ballots received after polls close if they are postmarked prior to Election Day. 

While numbers weren't immediately available for Tuesday, late absentee ballots in March accounted for 4,600 ballots tossed. 

"Many other states have made this adjustment, particularly for this year," Benson said. "It’s a simple logistical fix that lawmakers can make to ensure that come November thousands of ballots will be counted.”

Benson has had "good communication" about potential election law changes with House and Senate leadership, "but no conclusion reached on what, if any, change is necessary," said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

For the state to report results accurately and timely, "I do think it merits some changes," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday.

"I'm eager to work with them to give some of our local clerks the ability to do some of the process — not counting — but processing early on so we can get a count closer to when polls close," Whitmer said. 

Benson on Tuesday also made a plea to the federal government to allocate another $15 million to help with preparations for the election and to fully fund the U.S. Postal Service.

"That has been critical to meet the needs of voters," Benson said of the roughly $11.3 million in CARES Act funding the state received for the August primary.

Staff Writers Maureen Feighan and Sarah Rahal contributed.