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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

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

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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