As Electoral College meets, GOP and Dems agree Michigan vote needs reforms
At 9 a.m. on Nov. 4, 50 poll workers from Macomb Township’s absentee voter counting boards finally finished tabulating 30,000 absentee ballots. Their shift lasted 29 hours.
“It was brutal,” said Macomb Township Clerk Kristi Pozzi, a Republican.
It didn’t have to be this way, several Michigan clerks said. A few months before the Nov. 3 general election, many local election officials asked the Legislature for an extra week to start counting absentee ballots in anticipation of this very problem.
But the Legislature declined, instead passing a pre-processing bill that allowed clerks to open – but not count – ballots one day in advance.
The issue is one of several dividing Democrats and Republicans, as electors from Michigan and states nationwide are set to convene Monday for an Electoral College process to formalize Democrat Joe Biden’s victory as president-elect.
The Nov. 3 election featured record-breaking turnout of more than 5.5 million in Michigan, with 60 percent of voters casting absentee ballots.
To Democrats and many elections clerks, that’s a phenomenal accomplishment that requires some tweaks to smooth future elections that will be increasingly decided over the mail.
Some Republicans say the absentee ballot counting process created a host of problems and eroded faith in votes. Legislators are amid investigations of what House Oversight Chair Matt Hall, R-Marshall, called a “dysfunctional” election.
“There’s clearly a lot of people who lost trust in the election process because of how this turned out and what they’ve seen and heard since Election Day,” he said.
He and other Republicans say changes are necessary to “restore voters’ confidence.” While reforms may not be released until after the investigations, the GOP wants to ensure equal access and protections for poll challengers to guard against fraud, hold clerks who aren’t up to date on training accountable and remove ineligible people from the voting rolls.
Courts have found no evidence of widespread fraud, and municipal clerks and Democrats say the process went well but can be refined. They say they need more time to count absentee ballots, more money for workers and equipment and better technology to verify signatures and manage ballots.
Absentee voting “is going to cause a seismic shift in how elections are administered, and it's going to cause a need for some resources,” said Steve Gerhart, Ann Arbor deputy clerk.
Both sides agree that pre-processing absentee ballots could vastly improve results reporting, which would allow winners to be known on Election Day and remove doubts.
In Florida, for instance, counties have up to 40 days to begin pre-processing absentee ballots.
“I do believe now, we have time to learn from what Florida has done now in two election cycles and shamelessly copy them,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told Bridge Michigan.
Here’s what election officials said went well in November and what some clerks and GOP lawmakers believe needs to be changed ahead of the next election.
A light day at the polls, increased voter engagement
Voter turnout improved in nearly all Michigan counties, up to 68.5 percent statewide from 63 percent in 2016.
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Despite the increase in voters, clerks said lines were light at in-person polling places.
One reason turnout increased was because of no-excuse absentee voting, which was originally adopted in 2018 in Michigan through the passage of Proposal 3, clerks said. The reform, which also included the addition of same-day voter registration, expanded voting accessibility for all citizens, clerks said. Pre-paid postage for ballots, drop boxes and satellite offices provided voters with many options for returning these ballots.
“Before, people being busy with life got in the way of them getting to the polls,” said Pozzi, the Macomb Township clerk. “Absentee voting eliminates any reason not to vote.”
An ample amount of workers
Recruiting poll workers is a perennial problem nationwide and this year threatened to be worse when the coronavirus sidelined the older poll worker population (almost 60 percent of poll workers were 61 and older in the 2018 general election).
In anticipation of this problem, this year, a poll worker recruitment initiative from the Secretary of State’s Office, Democracy MVP, signed up more than 30,000 people across the state to work as election inspectors. Funding from the federal CARES Act and a grant from a nonprofit organization, the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life, allowed some of these workers to be paid twice as much as in previous elections – around $600 per day in Detroit.
For many clerks, this led to waiting lists of election workers for the first time. When 30 workers dropped out the week before the election in Ottawa County, for instance, they were quickly replaced from a pool of 200 trained workers.
Fewer human errors
This election was “far cleaner” in terms of poll worker mistakes or machine malfunctions than previous elections, said Chris Thomas, a former state elections director with over 30 years of experience who helped oversee Detroit’s count.
In Detroit, e-poll books, access to 25 high speed tabulators and younger, energized election workers who worked in shifts finished counting 174,000 ballots with far fewer errors and in relatively quick time; all results were submitted to the state Nov. 4.
Around the state, clerks said they experienced few equipment malfunctions and personnel problems.
Statewide, far more precincts were “balanced” — meaning that the number of voters recorded in precinct poll books matched the number of ballots cast.
In Genesee County, fewer than 20 out of 223,000 votes in 11 precincts were unbalanced and unexplained, a vast improvement from the August primary election, when 29 precincts were out of balance and unexplained.
Nov. 3 was “the best run election,” in county history, said Genesee County clerk John Gleason.
Republicans disagreed. Hall, who is leading a House investigation, pointed to Antrim County, where a clerical mistake briefly led the county to falsely report that Biden had prevailed over President Donald Trump.
“It is clear to me that clerks need more training,” Hall said.
The problem fueled false claims of widespread issues with Dominion Voting Systems, the second-largest supplier of voting equipment in the country used in 69 of Michigan’s 83 counties. Representatives from the company are set to testify at a Senate Oversight Committee hearing this week.
Areas for improvement
In an attempt to better-equip clerks to count hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots, the Legislature passed a bill in September that allowed election workers in communities larger than 25,000 to begin opening – but not tabulating – absentee ballots for 10 hours the Monday before Election Day.
In Detroit, it was a big help, Thomas said. But it wasn’t enough, many election officials agreed.
“A lot of us thought the answer was more machines – it's not,” said Pozzi, the Macomb Township clerk. “We need more time.”
In a Sep. 15 letter sent to House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, 17 Republican and Democratic clerks asked for just that. But the Legislature denied the request.
“They basically laughed in our face,” said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat.
The initiative required extra costs such as training and hiring more workers, and some clerks said it was more of a hassle than a help. Workers had to put ballots back in a secrecy sleeve and into a sealed bag after opening them, and had to re-verify the number of ballots they pre-processed Monday on Election Day.
Just two weeks after the election, Republican members of the Legislature acknowledged they “mishandled” the early counting measure.
“We should have allowed for early processing,” House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, told Politico. “We didn’t, and it became a spectacle. I think we can learn from that. It should be something the Legislature fixes moving forward.”
Still, some House Oversight Committee members said they worry about workers leaking election results as they count absentee ballots in advance, even though they take an oath not to do so.
Grand Rapids Clerk Joel Hondorp said the additional time will also lead to less misinformation about absentee ballots. If the ballots are tabulated over time, he noted, most results would be reported all at once on election night, and there wouldn’t be an “illusion of vote dumps.”
These dumps have fueled several false conspiracy theories from Trump and his supporters, who have claimed spikes in votes early in the morning were indicative of fraud. In fact, those were absentee ballots that took longer to count. Those mail-in ballots also may have favored Biden, experts said, because Trump spent months encouraging his supporters to vote in-person and questioning the integrity of the mail-in voting system.
More Republican election workers
State law requires an even number, or “as nearly as possible,” of Republican and Democratic elections workers.That wasn’t always the case, particularly in Detroit.
In the Democratic stronghold, many GOP poll challengers signed affidavits claiming there were no Republican election inspectors present when damaged absentee ballots were duplicated, which is a common practice.
Detroit election officials disputed that claim, but there’s no question there was a shortage of Republican workers. Detroit has struggled for years to hire Republican inspectors, like some other larger cities in Michigan.
“That's an area where more work is needed,” Thomas said.
The Secretary of State’s Office recruited 6,000 additional workers for the city of Detroit this year, but did not ask workers for their political party affiliation, said Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
The Democratic and Republican parties could help by enlisting members to serve as poll workers, rather than challengers, Thomas said.
Both the federal government and a nonprofit organization stepped in this year to provide millions of dollars to states to run safe elections and mail-in voting systems in the middle of a pandemic.
In March, the federal CARES Act granted $400 million to states through the Help America Vote Act. Michigan received $11.2 million. Another group, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to municipalities across the state for elections purposes.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson spent $1.4 million of CARES Act funding on postage for absentee ballot applications to 4.4 million voters across the state, money that Hall, other Republicans and some clerks said could have been better spent on equipment and other resources.
“A lot of county clerks were very upset with the Secretary of State sending out those applications. . .That’s their job – not the Secretary of State’s,” said Gleason, the Genesee County clerk.
The state also spent an additional $2 million reimbursing paid postage on ballot return envelopes, $1 million on drop boxes and security, automatic letter openers and other equipment and $1 million on tabulators and high speed scanners.
But municipalities will need another round of funding as they continue to incur additional costs associated with maintaining the expanded the mail-in voting system, such as pre-paid postage for ballots, additional high-speed ballot scanners, other election equipment and more election workers, clerks said.
Drop box security
Statewide, officials installed more than 1,000 drop boxes to collect absentee ballots, each of which cost roughly $600 to $800, Benson previously told Bridge.
Clerks said the boxes posed few problems and were a huge hit among voters, many of whom were concerned about postal service delays during the pandemic.
But in several battleground states, the boxes became a source of partisan controversy. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott limited drop boxes to one per county ahead of Nov. 3. In September, Michigan lawmakers passed a bill requiring video monitoring of outside absentee ballot drop boxes.
After the election, they became a target in Trump’s battle to overturn results. A Trump campaign lawsuit sought to halt the vote count and requested access to videotaped surveillance of ballot drop boxes, but it was dismissed by the Michigan Court of Appeals. On Friday, the state Supreme Court upheld the decision.
But some Republicans said they still have concerns about the footage. Hall said it’s a problem that some candidates haven’t been granted access to the surveillance tapes. Some of the cameras had obstructed footage, he claimed.
He doesn’t support removal of the boxes, but said there should be statewide standards for installing cameras and ensuring footage is available after the election for review.
“If there are any questions, we can look at these tapes and we can make sure that nothing funny happened,” he said.
Poll challenger reform
For several GOP House Oversight Committee members, protecting Republican poll challengers in future elections is a principal concern.
Thomas said the “wheels started to come off” on Nov. 4 at the TCF Center in Detroit, when a flood of GOP poll challengers heeded the Michigan GOP’s call to come and monitor absentee counting for fraud. Election officials and other poll watchers said their misunderstanding of the process caused chaos and disruption.
Later, the Trump campaign used the poll challengers’ claims in affidavits in a lawsuit which was later withdrawn. Wayne County Judge Timothy Kenny called their allegations “incorrect and not credible,” while noting many skipped a training on the counting process.
Clerks suggested a solution to this problem: state-mandated and standardized training for all poll challengers regarding the absentee counting process.
This training would help clarify what constitutes valid challenges and would also help relieve confused challengers’ frustrations, said Roebuck, the Ottawa County clerk.
Some clerks said GOP challengers in the Nov. 3 election didn’t have enough knowledge to serve as guardians of election integrity.
“They should attend a training for precinct inspectors, and they should be more engaged in election administration before they start pointing the finger at election officials,” said Byrum, the Ingham County clerk.
GOP legislators argued there should be more protections for challengers.
“We need a statute change that mandates that we have equal numbers” of challengers from each party, said Rep. Beau LaFave,R-Iron Mountain. “And if you throw a Republican out, you gotta bring another Republican in.”
LaFave said granting them access will help ensure everyone is confident “when the votes are tallied that the winner is the winner.”
Thomas said the challenger conflict will likely be resolved with a COVID-19 vaccine, which will allow challengers to come closer to observe the process, and without a “contentious” president who he said riled up an army of workers to watch for fraud that didn’t exist.
Bridge Michigan reporter Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.
This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
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