Michigan election costs rise with absentee ballots. Will GOP foot the bill?

Local election departments bore the brunt of election costs during a year where municipalities were strapped for funding. But the state is unlikely to step in. (Shutterstock)

Without the last-minute arrival of a $440,000 grant from a nonprofit in September, Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said the Nov. 3 election could have looked quite different for voters and election workers.

There may have been no ballot drop boxes for voters worried about postal service delays, no hazard pay to compensate election inspectors for working in a pandemic, longer lines at polling places staffed by fewer workers and lighter staffs the rest of the year to recoup the costs of an unprecedented election, Swope said.

“It would have been a struggle,” he said. 

Last fall, aided by a $350 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, the Center for Tech and Civic Life of Chicago, provided grants to 473 elections departments in Michigan and 2,500 nationwide. 

"Essentially, Mark Zuckerberg gave our election officials more money than Congress this year,” said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck. “And thank God that he did.” 

Several clerks said the money was essential to support the expansion of mail-in voting and maintain safe, in-person polling places during an election which featured record turnout of 5.5 million votes in Michigan, 60 percent of which were cast absentee. 

But the election cost municipalities — who bear the brunt of election expenses in Michigan — anywhere from two to eight times as much as past presidential elections, several clerks and city managers told Bridge Michigan. 

The increased costs are largely due to more staffing, since it takes far longer to process absentee ballots that have to be handled over several steps, from shipping and receiving to sorting, signature verification and counting. 

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In Canton Township in Wayne County, those costs “absolutely destroyed the overtime budget,” said Michael Siegrist, the township clerk. 

Michigan’s elections likely changed forever — and became more expensive — when voters in 2018 approved Proposal 3, which allowed no-excuse absentee voting. But the proposal did not set aside money for the state or local governments to recoup added costs.

That should be up to the Legislature, said Aghogho Edevbie, the state director for All Voting is Local, a voting rights advocacy group. 

“This should include more funding,” he said. 

But will it? That could be unlikely, as Republicans control the state Legislature and many say the expansion of absentee voting in MIchigan created a host of problems. President Donald Trump and others have falsely claimed that thousands of absentee ballots were falsely counted or “dumped,” costing him a victory in Michigan. 

“I’ve never thought putting more money behind a government program that doesn’t work well will make it work better,” said Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford Township. “More money ... has just caused more problems such as the Mark Zuckerberg money in Detroit.” 

Maddock is not the only conservative to raise criticisms of the tech nonprofit grant funds supplied by the Facebook CEO.  

In one of several lawsuits filed by Trump’s supporters in Michigan, the Great Lakes Justice Center argued the grant money benefited election administration in uniquely Democratic communities, though a database published by nonprofit shows the group awarded grants to many Michigan municipalities that Trump carried on Nov. 3. Similar lawsuits were filed in Texas, Pennsylvania, Iowa and South Carolina, but all were dropped. 

Still, experts said it’s not ideal to rely on private funding to run a government operation. 

“It’s not how this is supposed to work and it’s not how it should work,” said Ken Kollman, director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan. 

“Elections are a form of public trust, and they should be operated the way you would operate a courtroom, a judicial system or a fire department.”

The federal government in March allocated $400 million in election money to states as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

But election officials said that wasn’t enough money and forced local governments to pay for a host of new costs while budgets were already strained by the coronavirus.

In Battle Creek, City Manager Rebecca Fleury said she was shocked by municipal spending of $118,000 for the Nov. 3 election – roughly twice as much as previous years. The final cost did not include the $66,000 covered by two nonprofit grants and pre-paid postage and personal protective equipment supplied by the Secretary of State’s office. 

“There is no doubt in my mind that elections will cost more going forward,” said Fleury. 

More money for elections means less for other services, Fleury said, noting the city laid off 26 employees in November because of decreased income taxes during the pandemic.

Money woes also could leave future elections less secure, said Derek Tisler, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan law and public policy institute at New York University.

“If we wait another 10 to 15 years to fund election administration like we've done in the past, we're going to end up right back where we were before 2016 when we realized how many vulnerabilities existed in our election system,” he said.

Municipal governments foot election bills

In Michigan, municipalities, counties and the state share the costs of elections. 

The state pays directly for costs such as maintaining the voter registration system and contributes indirectly to elections by funding local governments with state-shared revenue. 

Cost for counties, which provide ballots and software, remained relatively stable this year compared to previous elections. But municipalities – which are responsible for administering elections in Michigan’s highly decentralized elections system – took on a host of new expenses. 

Last year, some costs were covered by the Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office, which used $11.2 million from the CARES Act to send absentee ballot applications, help pay for election equipment, cover ballot postage and provide personal protective equipment to municipalities. 

“That was a huge help. . . But if the state doesn't assist in paying for those types of supplies in the future, that's going to be an issue,” said Sterling Heights Clerk Melanie Ryska. 

State officials wanted more. In June, Benson told the federal government the state needed another $40 million to help run a safe election, but the money never came. 

To date, the federal government’s role in providing election assistance to local governments is limited, said Tisler, the Brennan Center for Justice fellow. 

When it has provided money, it’s done so through one-time grants, such as the 2002 Help America Vote Act. 

Ben Hovland, chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal election agency created by the Help America Vote Act, said the agency has asked since 2010 for more elections money to share with states.

But in 2019, the agency had its lowest annual operating budget to date – $7.95 million – $650,000 less than 2018. That’s less money than Kansas City, Missouri spends to fill potholes, Hovland said during a Dec. 15 election administration conference.

Budgets are declining as the administration of elections has become more political, said Kollman, the political science professor. 

Election officials “are government bureaucrats who are just doing their job. . . in a way that is completely devoid of party and what candidate they’re rooting for,” he said. “And yet the suspicions are so big on both sides that the state can’t agree on where the money should be devoted and how much.”

A costly absentee election 

In the absence of more federal funding, the Center for Tech and Civic Life provided unprecedented assistance to 2,500 election departments nationwide and as much as $400,000 apiece to several Michigan cities including Lansing, Flint and Pontiac. 

Without the money, Pontiac would be left to recoup $45,000 with more than six months left in its fiscal year, Clerk Garland Doyle sajd. Its entire election budget is $280,000.

“Had we not received the grant, we would be facing a tremendous budget shortfall,” Doyle said. 

Clerks said they are used to making do with limited money, but the November election posed great challenges as mail-in voting piled on costs for drop boxes, postage, voter education efforts, letter openers, satellite offices, ballot scanners and additional personnel. 

Staffing cost the city of Sterling Heights an estimated $175,000 said clerk Ryska. The city ended up exceeding its election budget by $100,000, even with the help of a $67,000 Center for Tech and Civic Life grant.

Other new technologies for counting absentee ballots racked up costs. Canton Township spent $14,000 on software for digital adjudication, which scans ballots that are damaged.  

Grand Rapids leased five high-speed ballot scanners for $7,500 apiece, clerk Joel Hondorp said.  That is still less expensive than the cost of purchasing new high speed tabulators at $35,000 each, as some communities had to. 

Budget shortfalls to come

Election officials said they can’t rely on last-minute philanthropic money to cover the many new costs expected to arise with the expansion of mail-in voting in future elections.

Cities soon will need new tabulators, for instance, which last about 10 years. Increased absentee ballots will require signature verification software that costs about $75,000 per $50,000, said Roebuck, the Ottawa County clerk.

But federal funding to replace equipment has expired, said Hondorp, the Grand Rapids clerk.

“I definitely think that there's got to be more investment made in this if we're going to continue absentee ballot voting the way that it's been this election,” said House Oversight Committee Chair Matt Hall, R-Marshall. 

Many are more reluctant. Rep. Beau Lafave, R-Iron Mountain, said he wouldn’t “automatically dismiss” more funding, but noted that the next election in 2022 likely will attract less interest.

“There aren't going to be nearly as many votes cast in the next election. So we probably don't need any more [funding] right now,” he said.

More uncertain is whether ongoing skepticism about the integrity of elections will impact funding requests, said Siegrist, the Canton clerk. 

Hall is leading an investigation into allegations of voting irregularities in absentee ballots in Detroit and other cities. While some elections officials say the questions underscore the need for more money to run successful elections, others fear the attention could give lawmakers a reason not to increase budgets. 

“[Under-resourced] communities will really struggle because they’ll lack the resources, and ironically, the same legislators that refuse to grant those resources will look to those communities and point fingers at them and say they are mismanaged,” Siegrist said. “It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Without more money, “there are a lot of municipalities and clerks who aren't going to be able to get this job done in the future,” Siegrist said. 

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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Mon, 01/04/2021 - 8:54am

Was the pre-paid postage provided by the Secretary of State provided to all precincts, or just to select precincts that the SOS wanted to increase the voting in. How can a government official selectively apply a benefit?

Tue, 01/05/2021 - 11:56am

Why did the state have to pay for the postage?

Jake K
Mon, 01/04/2021 - 9:37am

Why suggest that the financial challenges are the fault of the GOP? Just adding more fuel to the fire? It was most certainly the Democratic party nationwide which pushed absentee ballot, early voting and other facets which required the additional staffing and funding. Our own SOS Benson spent $$ sending out absentee voting applications when all that was needed was an individual contacting their local authority to request an application. Since the Dems pushed the extraordinary attempts at increasing voter turnout, it should be their responsibility to cover the costs. Pretty simple...do you put more gas in your car than you can afford? To spend more $$ than is available is just reckless. Such actions should not occur...period.

Jenny B
Tue, 01/05/2021 - 11:59am

I think the MI legislature controls the purse strings, GOP majority. Voting is an essential service.

Mon, 01/04/2021 - 11:48am

The democrats are now flagrantly spending money to buy votes. Critics say the CTCL project’s grants look a lot more like Democratic “Get-out-the-Vote” (GOTV) efforts in major cities around the country than good government efforts to protect the integrity of the electoral process of all Americans, regardless of their party affiliation.

Tue, 01/05/2021 - 12:00pm

"The democrats are now flagrantly spending money to buy votes." Really? How do I get my payment?

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 11:27am

Yeah, no one paid me for my vote.

Mon, 01/04/2021 - 11:49am

Wouldn't it have been nice if Zuckerburg would have given the 350 million to struggling restaurants and small businesses rather than using it to buy election results for the democrats?

Just sayin'
Wed, 01/06/2021 - 11:33am

That's a strange comment. Now that we have free and fair elections, our elected officials can tax Zuckerburg to do as you and the rest of us want. So quit complaining. You sound illogical.

Lawrence Redmond
Mon, 01/04/2021 - 12:14pm

Why should the GOP foot the Bill. It was the Democrats (SOS) who ran the bill up insisting on mailing applications to everyone on record whether one was requested or not... which is a violation of Michigan law. AND Often, multiple copies arrived at every address, some addressed to people who hadn't lived there for many years.
BUT Democrat Judges looked the other way.
Let THEM foot the bill.

Tue, 01/05/2021 - 12:01pm

We all have to pay, but the GOP is in control.

Mon, 01/04/2021 - 3:07pm

As I read the comments to this article, I was taken by each individual's willingness to work to deny people the right to vote just as Republicans have done in many States.

Voting is a fundamental right of democracy and the Governor and the legislature should ensure that sufficient funds are available to ensure that all voters can vote in person or by absentee ballots.

Connie B
Mon, 01/04/2021 - 9:40pm

I moved from Michigan in 2017 but was apparently mailed at least one application for an absentee ballot to my old address, which then generated several text messages wanting to know why I had not requested a ballot and whether I intended to vote. I did not appreciate this coersion and disrespect of my privacy sending unsolicited text messages. My daughter received more than one application, probably because she did not return it as she planned to vote in person. An incredible amount of money was spent trying to get people to vote by mail. Not sure who should pay for it but many of the efforts were excessive, redundant, expensive and intrusive.

Oh dear!
Tue, 01/05/2021 - 12:03pm

Did you vote multiple times like Trump recommended?

middle of the mit
Mon, 01/04/2021 - 10:29pm

To those who are asking why the GOP has to pay.......they don't. It isn't coming from the Republican parties check book, but the GOP holds the States checkbook. Therefore they are the ones that have to make legislation to pay for elections and everything else. Also, It wasn't just dems that voted for absentee voting.

As to the costs, the drop boxes are paid for, and for what my township paid for our box? It was a ridiculous amount of money. I just can't understand how Oregon can do this, Washington, Florida and Georgia. Why does it cost so much more here? Oregon has less citizens and is more rural than MI. Florida has more people.

It almost seems as though people are being incorrigible about absentee ballots and permanent lists because they know if that happens no one will miss an election, not even those elections held in the early part of the year.

Of course that would never happen! It's not like voters from 5 or 6 states are having their votes called fake and law makers are trying to scrub their votes because their votes and feeling aren't being taken into account.

I think I found the elite. Why are they calling everyone else elites when they are the ones that want to change laws, votes in their favor, while being the minority?

Tue, 01/05/2021 - 12:04pm

I think the MI GOP is only complaining about what they spent in Edison County.

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 10:48am

National defense and elections are kind of the basis of our country. If you don't want to fund them, then you don't want our representative form of government or a developed country and you are left with a dictatorship. It seems that's what 20 to 40% of our country wants.