Michigan clerks swamped as state rolls out voter reforms

Many polling places, meanwhile, saw relatively short lines. Elections workers estimated that may be because more people were voting absentee. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

Michigan’s first election with no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration Tuesday resulted in long lines at city clerk offices and an accusation of voter suppression from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. 

More than 13,000 people registered to vote and cast a ballot on Election Day, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters Tuesday night. Just over 6,000 of those registered and voted after 4:30 p.m. Many were young people voting for the first time. 

Around 1 million people voted absentee — nearly doubling the total number of people who voted absentee in the 2016 presidential primary and on par with the number cast in that year’s general election. 

To Benson, that’s a “great thing.”


“While this expansion of our democracy was historic, it also brings with it challenges for the more than 1,500 election clerks across our state,” Benson said.

Others weren’t so impressed. 

Sanders, who lost the Michigan Democratic primary race to Joe Biden, told The Detroit News the long lines amounted to “voter suppression,” while Voters Not Politicians campaigns director Jamie Lyons-Eddy called them “simply unacceptable.”

“It’s time to work together to make sure all Michiganders have fair and equal voting access,” Lyons-Eddy said.

At some city clerk’s offices, the waits to register to vote stretched hours. 

In East Lansing, voters were still waiting in line two hours after polls closed.

Benson said long lines there and in Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Dearborn were due to a “bottleneck” caused by residents registering and casting in-person absentee ballots on the same day.

She said her office will explore ways to help those locations open satellite offices to help ease congestion in November.

The problems largely seemed confined to a handful of cities, however. 

Elsewhere, lines were short. Some estimated that was because so many had already voted absentee. 

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope told Bridge Tuesday evening that the city had registered more than 200 people that day and sent out 11,791 absentee ballots, which is “presidential general election level.”

“It's really exciting to see” the uptick in registration, Swope said. “It's not just young people. I'm actually surprised by the number of people with driver's licenses that show that they've been at this address for six years who are coming in registering for the first time. It’s really heartening.”

One other result of the reforms that final results likely won’t be complete until Wednesday, Benson said.

Biden was cruising to an easy victory and several news outlets declared him the winner, but the exact count may be delayed. That’s because absentee ballot counters must remove each ballot from two envelopes and prepare to put into a tabulator, and they can only begin at 7 a.m. on Election Day. 

Benson and local clerks have pushed the Legislature to allow for early processing of ballots to speed up counting on Election Day, but legislation stalled before the primary. 

There are likely to be more than 2 million people casting absentee ballots in the general election in November, “significantly more” than in 2016, she said, urging lawmakers to push changes forward. 

“We predicted the significant surge in absentee votes,” Benson said. “What we've encountered is a number of others who are not, particularly in the legislature, willing to make those same data-driven analyses and decisions.”

The level of absentee voting that happened across the state was “remarkable,” said Adrian Hemond, partner and CEO of Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest. 

The Sanders campaign, which performed well with college-aged voters in 2016, “made a concerted effort” to get out the vote among their supporters using the new access to last-minute registration. “But it doesn’t appear to have paid off,” Hemond said. 

In the future, that may mean campaigns may begin ads with voters “earlier and earlier” because they’ll be able to cast ballots within 40 days of the election, Hemond said.

In Detroit, few polling places saw long lines, said Ernest Johnson, Detroit Democratic operative, partially because people voted early through absentee ballots. And that could have a big effect on the November election, he said.

“We’re going to have way more voters participate in November,” Johnson said. “That’s bad news for Donald Trump. The 10,000 votes that he won by four years ago — we’re going to double that number in Detroit alone.”

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Kevin Grand
Wed, 03/11/2020 - 7:46am

Of course there were problems. That's what the proponents of Prop 3 wanted in the first place: Mess up the (then) current system, so you can go back and take another crack at making the problem even worse.

What other possible outcome did they expect would occur when they overwhelm the system by having people showing up in large numbers at the very last minute on election day?

You reap what you sow.

Wed, 03/11/2020 - 12:57pm

I cannot get over how your comments keep getting dumber. I mean, we all know you probably are cool with voter suppression of the poor and minorities, given your misanthropic stance on literally every position, but I don't know how your addled brain is squaring the circle with this take

Kevin Grand
Wed, 03/11/2020 - 10:33pm

Ah, Bones, using the same old (and very tired) reply when you cannot think up a valid response.

How sad.

So, let me bottom line it for you: Why is expecting the "poor & minorities" to adhere the most basic level of personal responsibility (you know, the same exact thing as everyone else does on a daily basis) now viewed as...{cue the foreboding music} "voter suppression".

You're telling me that the poor & minorities now incapable of using a computer? A cell phone? A calendar? A newspaper? Their local library? How about the US Postal Service?

I don't just don't share your nihilistic attitude.

Another fact doesn't change either, you cannot swamp local clerks with an influx of work at the last minute and still expect them to perform as usual. Our elections, by their very nature, are a VERY labor intensive process. The people pushing for "Promote the Vote" (or anyone with knowledge on how politics work here in Michigan) knew this irrefutable fact very well. To claim otherwise strains all credibility.

Wed, 03/11/2020 - 12:57pm

I cannot get over how your comments keep getting dumber. I mean, we all know you probably are cool with voter suppression of the poor and minorities, given your misanthropic stance on literally every position, but I don't know how your addled brain is squaring the circle with this take

Wed, 03/11/2020 - 10:02am

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the only reason for the delay in counting absent voter ballots is poor planning and preparation on the part of the local units. If you know there is going to be a huge increase in AV ballots, hire more people! And as for the long lines to register-that's what you get for waiting until 8:00 PM to register on election day-get your butt in gear and get registered ahead of time!! Such nonsense.

Wed, 03/11/2020 - 12:43pm

Kudos to the right to same-day registration and absentee voting. Now if more people would vote absentee in November, we wouldn't have the long lines. (As for same-day registration - why wait until the last possible day? Planning ahead helps everybody...)

Erma McMillan
Wed, 03/11/2020 - 6:20pm

They should recruit retired state employees to volunteer. We can certainly open envelopes.