Michigan passes absentee ballot voting test. November could be another story.

Although there were some glitches, a record number of absentee ballots didn’t cause the troubles that officials had feared. (Shutterstock)

When Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown left her house to work the August primary on Tuesday morning, she bid her husband farewell until the next day and perhaps longer. 

She barely slept, leading election workers to tabulate results throughout the night until they were complete around 10:20 a.m. Wednesday. 

That’s later than usual, but nowhere near the one- or two-day delays predicted by elections officials ahead of the primary. That was the case statewide, as Michigan appeared to pass its first major test of the state’s new no-reason absentee voting law.

Although there were some glitches, particularly in Detroit, a record number of absentee ballots didn’t cause the troubles that officials had feared, even amid a global pandemic.

Polling places were largely calm and there were no reports of long lines, while other states including Georgia, Wisconsin and South Carolina experienced rocky in-person voting as policy and technology changed amid the virus. 

Still, elections officials said the challenge in November could be even greater. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson warned Tuesday night that two to three times as many absentee ballots could be expected in the fall. 

“Having to wait until 10:20 this morning is a bit much. People want results,” Brown, the Oakland County clerk, said. “Now looking to November, this is how it was in August — what will it be in November?”

And as of late Wednesday afternoon, results for the state’s largest county, Wayne, were still incomplete with 65 of 981 precincts uncounted (although the outcome of most races was determined).

Officials have argued that long waits for can undermine faith in elections. But after a relatively smooth primary, there may not be political capital in MIchigan to move forward legislation aimed at easing absentee ballot counting by allowing clerks to begin processing them before the polls close.  

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, expressed concern over a bill to do so from former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson but later said it may be considered depending on how the year’s elections play out.

Amber McCann, spokesperson for Shirkey, told Bridge Wednesday that “results appear to be timely.”

“We’ll continue to review and gather information to better understand what, if any, process changes should be considered,” she said.

A surge in ballots

The primary did follow through on one anticipated trend: a record-breaking surge in absentee ballots. 

More voters than ever before chose to vote from afar than show up in person, with more than 1.6 million mail-in ballots counted by 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. That trounced the state’s last record high of 1.27 million in the November presidential election in 2016. 

While total voter turnout still isn’t available, it appears absentee ballots account for the lion’s share of votes cast in the primary. With Wayne County’s totals still out, absentee ballots made up about 77 percent of all other votes. 

Benson had spent much of this year promoting absentee voting, including applications to all 7.7 million registered voters in the state. 

“I'm proud that we did not see or hear any accounts of crowding at precincts, long lines at precincts, people waiting to vote for hours and into the night,” Benson said. “We were able to move voters through quickly, efficiently.”

Benson’s Republican predecessor, Johnson, is now a state senator. She told Bridge the primary was “a mixed bag … but overall it went well.” However, she still sees a need for legislation she introduced earlier this year that would allow for election workers to pre-process absentee ballots by removing them from their exterior mailing envelope (not the secrecy envelope) the day before the election. 

“It seems like such a small step, but it does make a difference,” Brown of Oakland County said. “The Legislature needs to continue to trust clerks … these are people committed to the democratic process and other states do it.”

At least 35 other states allow some kind of pre-processing of ballots ahead of Election Day.

Many Republicans fear that bills that allow pre-processing could threaten election security and invite fraud.  

New problems arise

But Tuesday’s election wasn’t without problems.

As of 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, more than 440,000 absentee ballots remained unaccounted for. It’s unclear whether those ballots weren’t returned by voters or if they’re stuck in postal delays that are lengthening wait times for mail across the country. 

Absentee ballots received after Election Day in Michigan don’t count, even if they’re postmarked by that date. While the postal service and state election officials say ballots are processed separately from regular mail, there were widespread reports of ballots not reaching voters or clerks fast enough. 

Three polling places in Detroit and one in Flint opened later than legally required because of last-minute staffing issues, as some poll workers didn’t show up likely due to coronavirus concerns. Eighty volunteers were dispatched throughout the state to supplement lean precinct staff, the Secretary of State’s office said Tuesday. 

Around a dozen polling places out of more than 150 in Detroit changed locations in the month leading up to the election. But some voters reported not being told about the changes until the last minute, causing confusion. 

Aghogho Edevbie, director of the Michigan branch of voting rights advocacy group All Voting is Local, said the primary left him “relieved, but … profoundly concerned.”

“While many aspects of this primary were a first from the widespread use of vote by mail, to COVID-19 pandemic concerns, there is no excuse for ballots not to arrive on time or polling locations to open late and not be adequately staffed and not to inform voters of the changes the election,” he said. 

“If we don't fix these things in November, we're going to have a very bad situation that could turn into a disaster.”

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Thu, 08/06/2020 - 7:12am

Hmm. I had heard numerous reports of people being denied ballots because they were alleged to have requested an absentee ballot when in fact they had not made such a request. That does not sound like a success to me.

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 8:53am

The key is setting expectations as to the window of time when results are likely to be available. I am sure in our history we have had to wait weeks to learn of the results of national elections. Ensuring a good count is more important than a hurried count.

George Hagenauer
Thu, 08/06/2020 - 8:56am

Having worked elections for 25 years in Wisconsin not here- I would look at adjunct rooms where available (often at schools etc.) where extra poll workers could count absentee ballots during the day. Being 70 I am not real interested in being in an open polling place with lots of people passing through. I would however process ballots in a separate room with a handful of other workers or poll watchers. Properly promoted your older poll workers might be willing to do it. In terms of increasing poll workers overall and getting younger ones part day shifts worked well in the area of Wisconsin where I was a poll worker. It also meant better accuracy as you can get really tired after 12 hours of working the polls especially during a presidential. We did 4 hour shifts with the last shift more than 4 hours since it involved the counting . Some of us did one shift some two but it meant that people who were working or had other responsibilities only needed to do the polls part day. It worked well and expanded the pool of trained workers overall.

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 9:07am

Surge in ballots, has there been a surge in hiring people to process the votes in a timely manner?

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 9:49am

should be no problems as long as the republicans do not try to stop people from voting !!!

Jim C
Thu, 08/06/2020 - 10:17am

Don't label this a Michigan article. Its a Detroit article. The north Michigan border isn't I69. So sick of "Michigan" articles that can't find their way out of Wayne County.

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 10:26am

At least in my precinct, voting in person was very, very light. That’s not unexpected for a primary. Voting in the general election will be many times more. If there were problems this time, there will be disaster next time.

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 1:45pm

I’m not sure that I agree that the absentee ballot voting test in Michigan passed when they have 440,000 absentee ballots unaccounted for?
If we truly want to move forward and improve voting and make it easily accessible why are we using paper mail-in ballots? With today’s technology why is it not possible to vote on our phones or home computers? IDs can be verified by scanning licenses (as they do at the polls)or codes? For convenience if voting in person is preferred the use of voting kiosks at places of business or work?
Of course paper absentee voting needs to be available for those who do not have access to other means.
I’m sure cost is an issue but it feels we are moving backwards with using mail service and paper ballots that all need to be managed by hands-on .

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 3:29pm

Record 2.5M voted in Michigan primary; Benson urged the Republican-led Legislature to change the law so clerks can open absentee ballots the day before Election Day, warning that the results of close races in November likely will not be known until three days later without legislation.

Elsie Anne
Thu, 08/06/2020 - 4:19pm

I'm suspicious of the Republican's effort to tie the hands of the polling station clerks by not allowing them to remove outer envelopes a day early. Other states are doing this, and there is no indication that it leads to fraud, so I'm concerned that this is just another effort to sabotage the mail-in/drop-off ballot system.

O M Walters
Sat, 08/08/2020 - 1:07pm

Since I am one of the vulnerable voters,but still able to get out, I went directly to my city office the week before August 4 election to pick up and Absentee Application. I then asked if maybe I could get my Ballot at the same time. I did get it. When I filled it out I noticed it had my old PO Box on it from 4 years ago when I moved 10 miles away due to loss of husband. HAD I NOT PICKED UP MY BALLOT THAT DAY, IT WOULD HAVE GONE TO THE OLD PO BOX # AND I MAY NOT HAVE EVER RECEIVED IT OR FOR SURE ON TIME TO BE COUNTED. HOW MANY OTHERS HAVE HAD PO BOXES CHANGE OF ADDRESS'S THAT DIDN'T RECIEVE OR GOT BALLOTS IN ON TIME because ?
PS. I do get my City utility bills at correct address. A computer glitch maybe?? But it happens. Therefor I am for Requesting Absentee and hand delivering if possible earlier if need to.

Sun, 08/09/2020 - 8:55am

This seems like we are setting up a Cloward-Piven scenario.
Overwhelm a system, and take power amid the chaos. Typical left wing tactic

Pat B
Sun, 08/09/2020 - 10:33am

I worked this Primary, processing absentee ballots and worked from 7:30 am to 10:45 pm! I am 74 years old! All volunteers on our team of 16 were senior citizens! That is a LONG day! We processed over 8,000 ballots! I have done this for many years prior and this is the busiest we have ever been! And yes, it will be much worse in November! Unless the law is changed to allow for early processing, or our township changes it’s policy to allow split shifts, I will not be working in November! In addition to the harsh working conditions, in this time of Covid, we are all taking our lives in our hands, as well! Changes are needed!