A 2018 law made absentee voting for any reason available to all Michigan voters. With the pandemic upon us, many people are deciding that’s reason enough to avoid the polls and vote from home.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says the number of people who are choosing to vote absentee in the state is huge.
“We have already seen more than 1.7 million absentee ballot requests for the August 4 primary, which is more than 350% more than the same time in 2016, our previous presidential election year,” explains Benson.
This increase is causing some local clerks to worry about how long it will take for them to count ballots on Election Day. When a person votes at the polls, nearly everything is taken care of during that one trip. But when a person votes absentee the process is more involved.
“When it comes to preparing to process all these absentee ballots, we want to give clerks more time, more people and more machines. And so we provided really the latter more machines and more people. And we need our legislature now to provide more time.” — Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State
“There are several security checks and signature verifications that need to happen in order to ensure that the ballot is able to be counted,” says Benson.
Once verified, “the ballots must be prepared to go to the machines, go through the machines, and we’re talking, hundreds of thousands of ballots at the same time,” says Benson.
Tools of the Trade
To help municipalities get all their absentee ballots counted in a timely manner, the state provided millions of dollars in funding for local clerks to purchase special supplies. The state also helped recruit workers.
“We do have two high-speed counters. Each counter counts about 77 per minute,” says Warren Clerk Sonja Buffa.
If you’re imaging two senior citizens in a corner rapidly counting ballots then think again. A high-speed counter isn’t a person.
“It’s just a high-speed machine that you pass ballots in and they count them pretty quickly,” explains Buffa. She says they received another contraption with help from that state, too. It slices open envelopes.
Orion Township Clerk Penny Shults says her department got approval from their Board of Trustees to purchase a high-speed tabulator last year.
“And so we were prepared and ready to use it in the March Presidential Primary. It went fantastic,” says Shults.
Orion Township also purchased two automated letter openers, which, Shults says, “has really helped tremendously to open those applications and to be able to open those ballots on Election Day.”
For the March election, Shults says they were able to finish counting ballots an hour and 15 minutes after the polls closed. She expects a similar time frame this August, even though more people will be participating in this election.
“It’s more envelopes to open, but as long as we follow the procedures that we have in place I think we will do very well,” says Shults.
Precinct Inspectors Need More Time
Things may not go as smoothly for larger municipalities. Canton Township serves more than twice as many residents as Orion during its elections and the Canton clerk, Michael Siegrist, is worried about the logistics of counting the influx of absentee ballots they’re receiving. Siegrist says a few weeks before the election they had 23,000 absentee ballot requests, 9,000 more than they’ve ever dealt with before.
“How do we count those all in one day? And the short answer is we don’t,” says Siegrist. “There’s no humane way to do that for these precinct inspectors.”
“Clerks from all political parties have gone to the state legislature and begged them for relief, ways to begin counting ballots early, opening ballots early, even just removing them from the envelope so that we can process them faster on Election Day. And the legislature has been really unwilling to take up this issue.” — Michael Siegrist, Canton Township Clerk
Under the current law, absentee ballots cannot be opened until 7 a.m. on Election Day. The people who count them have to stay with the ballots the whole time, from the moment they tear off the first outer envelope, to the moment the last paper ballot is tabulated.
“A Precinct Inspector is really just an overactive citizen. It’s somebody who’s engaged in the process who takes in, sequesters their Election Day, and dedicates it to the country and to their community. And I kind of refuse to have those individuals work 18 hours to count these ballots,” says Siegrist.
Instead, the Canton Clerk wants to see legislation passed. Bills were introduced in January by former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who is currently a State Senator in Holly. One bill would help clerks speed up the absentee ballot process by allowing the department to open outside envelopes prior to Election Day. The other would allow the people who count absentee ballots to work in shifts. While there has been some movement, neither bill has become law yet.
“Clerks from all political parties have gone to the state legislature and begged them for relief, ways to begin counting ballots early, opening ballots early, even just removing them from the envelope so that we can process them faster on Election Day. And the legislature has been really unwilling to take up this issue,” says Siegrist.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says that needs to change.
“Really when it comes to preparing to process all these absentee ballots, we want to give clerks more time, more people and more machines,” says Benson. “And so we provided the latter, more machines and more people, and we need our legislature now to provide more time.”
If clerks aren’t given more time to process absentee ballots before the November 3rd election, then Benson says that day won’t be called “Election Day,” it will be called “Election Week” because, she says, that’s how long it will take for presidential votes to be counted.
As for how long it will take for ballots to be counted for the primary election. We’ll find out, August 4th. Or maybe August 5th.