Michigan vote tally may take days, Benson warns. Others expect faster results.
LANSING — The country will be watching Michigan on Tuesday, but it may have to wait until Friday to see full results from the presidential election, according to Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
She’s tempering expectations amid high vote turnout projections and a crush of absentee ballots, but many local clerks are predicting quicker counts — and news organizations may call the results of the presidential election much sooner.
With as many as 3 million Michiganders expected to vote by absentee ballots, which take considerably longer to count than in-person votes, Benson says she wants to ensure “everyone’s expectations are set appropriately.”
“It may be a lot sooner than Friday, but we want to make sure the process is secure,” Benson told Bridge Michigan at a recent event in Detroit. “We know Michigan’s going to be under such scrutiny, that I want to give clerks and our poll workers and election workers room to do their jobs well, and do it methodically, and be accurate and not rush.”
Benson issued a similar warning in the August primary, suggesting it could take a day or two for final results in many races.
That didn’t happen. Most results were known by Wednesday morning. But more than twice as many voters are expected to cast absentee ballots in the general election.
As of Friday, more than 3.3 million Michiganders had requested absentee ballots and more than 2.6 million had returned them, shattering the record 1.6 million record set in the August primary.
In Michigan, more than 1,500 municipalities will process results, and they’re bracing for a host of issues from a surge of absentee ballots, the potential for polling place disruptions and uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic.
Several local election officials who spoke with Bridge said they expect to produce unofficial results no later than Wednesday morning, but some are scrambling to replace poll workers who have canceled because of the virus.
A butter knife
To help speed the count, Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer approved a law to allow clerks in cities and townships with at least 25,000 residents to open absentee ballot mailing envelopes on Monday.
But poll workers can’t remove absentee ballots from a separate secrecy sleeve or feed them into tabulator machines until 7 a.m. on Election Day, a process that will need to be repeated millions of times across the state.
Some states give clerks several days to begin processing absentee ballots before the election, but GOP majorities in the Michigan Legislature were hesitant to give clerks more than one day, citing security concerns.
“Instead of a saw, they gave us a butter knife,” said Lansing Clerk Chris Swope, a Democrat and president of the statewide Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. “They have not given us what we need.”
In Lansing, Swope expects poll workers will handle as many as 35,000 absentee ballots on Election Day. That’s up from an average of about 11,000 in past years and roughly double the 17,000 absentee ballots they processed in August, when it took workers “until about 1 in the morning” to finish the count on election night, he told reporters on a recent call.
Michigan law requires clerks to sequester workers on Tuesday, but for municipalities that set up separate absent voter counting boards, the new state law allows them to bring in new or additional workers once polls close at 8 p.m. At least one election inspector representing each major political party must be present at all times..
Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton, a Republican, is bracing for an absentee ballot surge in the Oakland County city that President Donald Trump narrowly carried in 2016 before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer narrowly flipped it for Democrats in 2018.
“If everything works out perfectly, we should [be able to report our results] some time Wednesday,” Barton said, but “unknown factors,” such as a tabulator breakdown on Election Day, could extend that timeline.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who can accurately project exactly when we’re going to be done,” she said in a joint call with Swope where both election officials warned of delays.
Experts are warning against making assumptions based on earlier returns, because it’s likely many communities, including some of the state’s largest cities, will report in-person tallies before they finalize their absentee counts.
More Democrats are expected to vote absentee, which means early results could show Trump with a significant lead that could be a mirage, said Bernie Porn, a pollster with EPIC-MRA in Lansing.
“Our polling shows that about 70 percent of Democrats are going to vote by absentee ballot, and about 60 percent of Republicans are going to vote at the polls,” he said.
“So Republicans should not feel too cocky on election night when they see their guy leading, because the absentee vote ballots have not been fully counted yet. And Democrats should not feel suicidal.”
Late tallies that swing the race to one candidate or another could open the state up to scrutiny, especially given Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of rampant voter fraud.
If the results take days, Benson said she plans regular and public updates “from the moment the polls close” to reassure citizens that the process is working.
“We can’t manage for everything everyone’s going to say, but we can just provide those accurate updates and information throughout the process and make sure the process works,” she said.
Benson’s office expects to see misinformation spread during the counting period but is “in touch” with social media companies and will be flagging and reporting inaccurate posts that could shake public confidence, said spokesperson Jake Rollow.
“We will continue to count votes until all the votes are counted,” Rollow said. “If either candidate or anyone were to declare victory when that wasn’t clearly demonstrated by the numbers of what’s already been counted, we’ll be sharing those numbers, and we’ll be sharing them as we can throughout the process.”
The Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan advocacy group, hammered that point home in a recent call with Michigan election officials and reporters.
“If we hit that period of uncertainty… which is a very real possibility in a close race, voters lose confidence in the process and they lose faith that the eventual result is accurate,” said Ben Winston of Strategies 360, pollster for the group. “That’s a highly problematic outcome for everybody.”
Battling COVID and equipment
While some large cities like Detroit report their own results, most rely on county clerks to publish unofficial tallies on election night.
In Calhoun County, for instance, most communities have voting machine systems that will automatically send results to the county, and others will transmit results electronically from their local clerk’s office, said Teri Loew, the county’s chief deputy clerk of elections.
But anything could happen, she said, noting that an absentee ballot tabulator in Battle Creek broke Election Day in August, causing delays.
The vendor quickly shipped a replacement from Grand Rapids, but “it took time for the city to “run them all again,” Loew said. The county published unofficial results by 1:30 a.m. but had to keep some staff on hand until 4:30 to collect physical ballots.
This time around, Loew said she’d be happy if local clerks have their results into the county by 2 a.m.
“Worst case, we’re here until the next morning at 8 a.m. We don’t want to do that again,” she said.
“Our big thing right now is losing inspectors to COVID or other things,” she said, noting that at least two local municipalities have had a significant number of paid election workers drop out in the past week as the coronavirus spreads through Calhoun County.
As Bridge reported Thursday, Benson’s office is working to build a “reserve pool” of roughly 1,500 election workers that could be deployed to local communities on Election Day in the event of staff shortages or other emergencies.
The state recruited more than 30,000 poll workers through its Democracy MVP program. Some of those workers have already been assigned to Detroit, the state’s largest city, which struggled to process absentee ballots in August.
“We’re in a wonderful place for poll workers. We just hope they all show up,” Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey said in a Thursday news conference.
In Battle Creek, Calhoun County’s largest city, at least three election workers have already dropped out after contracting COVID, according to Clerk Victoria Houser, who told Bridge she’s already found replacements but is concerned about losing more.
In August, it took Battle Creek election workers until 1:30 a.m. to finish processing 5,225 absentee ballots. More than 12,000 voters have requested absentee ballots for the general election, and more than 9,000 have already been returned.
Battle Creek is among nine Calhoun County jurisdictions that are using separately staffed counting boards to process absentee ballots. Since August, the city has added a counting board and leased a second computer equipment system, Houser said.
She’s not sure how long the process will take this week, but “we don’t plan to be here until Friday,” Houser told Bridge, noting she has several election workers who will need to go back to their day jobs, including two teachers and a hospital worker.
“I hope to God that’s not what happens. I hope the machinery works. I hope all my staff is well so they can work, because it is going to be a long day,” Houser said. “If the Secretary of State feels [the count may take until Friday,] maybe some more resources should be given to the municipalities so that doesn’t happen.”
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?