(TNS) — With absentee voting skyrocketing since voters approved a ballot proposal last year allowing for its expansion, clerks across Michigan are worrying about counting ballots next year, when a record turnout is expected for the presidential race.
Some clerks and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson are calling on the state to allow election officials to be able to open and prepare absentee ballots for counting — and maybe even begin tabulating — votes before Election Day.
Opponents worry that early processing and counting could lead to more voter fraud because ballots could be less secure until they're ready to be counted. They're also concerned that results could leak out and have a chilling effect on voters who haven't cast ballots yet.
In the August primary and November general election, when city leadership races and police and parks millages were at stake, absentee voting in some communities was as high as 82%. Hot races drew a record number of absentee voters:
In Warren, 51.2% of the votes came from absentee voters, who provided the winning margin for Mayor Jim Fouts' reelection last week.
In Westland, where seven candidates were vying for four City Council seats, 67% of the voters cast absentee ballots last week.
In Rochester Hills, where six people were running for two seats on the City Council, 82% of voters chose the absentee route during the August primary.
Thirty other states and Washington D.C. have rules and laws in place that allow for election officials to at least begin processing absentee ballots and, in some cases, counting the votes, before Election Day. This eases the load on Election Day and allows for quicker release of results after the polls close.
Under Michigan law, election officials aren't allowed to process or count ballots until Election Day.
Local Clerks Seeing Big Changes In Voting Habits
Local clerks began seeing the impact of Proposal 3, allowing anyone to vote by absentee ballot, in the first election of the year in May.
But the August primary and the November 5 election results confirmed their suspicion that elections in Michigan have changed forever.
“In August, 82% of the ballots we issued were voted by absentee,” said Rochester Hills city clerk Tina Barton. “On Tuesday (Nov. 5), more than 50% were absentee and I’m anticipating in March (for the presidential primary), we’ll be back to the higher number.”
In statewide November elections in 2014, 2016 and 2018, absentee voting rates ranged from 25.4% to 26.5%. While the state doesn't keep a tally in municipal elections, cities across the state reported absentee vote totals from last week's election at 50% or higher.
Coupled with a new provision that allows people to register to vote, and cast ballots, up through Election Day, clerks are worried about how to cope with the more labor-intensive duties on Election Day.
In Warren, where a highly contested race for mayor attracted a higher than normal turnout, 51.2% cast absentee ballots.
“Our permanent absentee voter list went from 12,000 to 21,000 people and that number could double for the presidential election next year,” Warren city clerk Sonja Buffa said.
Warren election workers began counting the absentee ballots at 8 a.m. and didn't finish until 11 p.m. It's a labor intensive process that requires ballots to be removed from envelopes, unfolded, flattened and fed through a ballot tabulator.
"I think it will eventually even out and I’ll need less people at the polls and more at AV board," Buffa said. "But for now, I like to have six people at each of the precincts and at least 50 people counting absentee ballots."
In Westland, 67% of the 8,638 voters who cast ballots chose the absentee route. And that wasn’t a surprise for Clerk Richard LeBlanc.
“One of the things that I did when I first was elected was an outreach effort because we had 11,000 people over 60 who weren’t permanent absentee voters,” he said. “We went from slightly over 4,000 on our permanent AV list to 11,000. So, we’ve had the benefit of a couple of years of a higher volume.”
And 2020 is only going to be bigger. The last four presidential cycles have recorded turnouts of at least 63% in Michigan.
"While we don't make specific predictions, we’re expecting a surge in turnout next year, because a lot of people are watching and are excited about this coming election," said Myrna Perez, the director of Voting Rights and Elections at the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based organization that advocates, in part, for equal and fair access to voting. "We're telling election workers they need to be prepared."
Michiganders Wanted Easier Access To The Polls
The surge in absentee voting comes after Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot proposal in 2018 that expanded access to voting in several ways. The proposal:
Allowed all voters to vote by absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse. Previously, voters had to use one of six reasons to be eligible for absentee ballots — 60 or older, out of town on Election Day, being a poll worker, being unable to vote without assistance at the polls, in jail awaiting arraignment or trial; unable to vote in person because of religious reasons;
Allowed voters to register to vote, and cast ballots, up through Election Day. Before Proposal 3, people couldn’t register to vote in the 30 days before an election.
Restored straight-ticket voting, which allows voters to fill in one box on the ballot to vote for all Republicans or Democrats.
The sentiment behind the “Promote the Vote” ballot proposal was to make it easier for people to cast ballots and to perhaps increase participation in elections.
Turnout this month was up slightly in Wayne and Macomb counties compared with the comparable election four years ago, but down slightly in Oakland County.
Macomb County Clerk Fred Miller can’t say yet whether the increase in absentee voting was a factor for the turnout uptick.
“We had a couple of really high-interest races in some communities,” he said, pointing to the Warren mayor’s race and millages in Washington Township. “I think it will take a couple of election cycles to figure it out.”
Charles Stewart III, who runs the election data and science lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said there’s little evidence that easier access to absentee voting increases turnout in big election years, such as the 2016 or upcoming 2020 presidential elections.
“Where it does increase turnout is for elections of lower interest, like school board elections, bond issues or municipal elections,” he said. “Those are areas where, when you have a permanent absentee voter list, you can double turnout in those elections pretty easily.”
Clerks Say Proposals For Help Not Adequate
Lawmakers are looking at ways to ease the burden on local clerks. Bills have been introduced that would mandate local clerks create permanent absentee voter lists that would be used to mail out applications for absentee ballots.
The bills also would make it easier to consolidate precincts as more people choose the absentee voting route and allow clerks to use more unconventional locations for polling precincts, since some locations such as schools are no longer allowing elections officials to use their buildings for precincts.
But that’s not nearly enough for many clerks who have to balance the need for maintaining the integrity of the election with reporting results in a timely manner.
Clinton Township Clerk Kim Meltzer told lawmakers last month that 16,000 voters cast absentee ballots in the August election and it took her election workers until 2:30 a.m. to get those ballots counted.
“And now we’re anticipating even more of an increase in 2020,” she said. “Even if it’s just three hours more, that’s taking us to 5 a.m. and it’s mostly older people processing the ballots.
“With sleep deprivation, mistakes are more likely at that point,” she added. “We want to provide quick results, but not at the expense of the integrity of the process.”
Some clerks are calling on the state to allow election officials to be able to at least open and prepare absentee ballots for counting before Election Day.
Barton takes it a step further and said that clerks should be allowed to run absentee ballots through voting tabulators before Election Day, making sure that no vote totals are tallied until the polls close at 8 p.m. on election night.
“We can start counting early, putting ballots through tabulators. Or Virginia has a preparation process, getting the ballots in stacks and ready to go, but not tabulated,” she said. “It’s like chopping all the vegetables the night before for Thanksgiving dinner.”
Other states are doing it. Oregon is one of three states — the others are Washington and Colorado — that does all of its voting by mail and begins running ballots through tabulators before Election Day.
Michigan was the latest state to allow for no-reason absentee voting, joining 30 other states that let voters fill out and turn in their ballots before Election Day. Another 19 states require a specific excuse for absentee voting.
Some clerks and lawmakers are skeptical of early voting, though, and are concerned that results might leak out before all voters cast their ballots.
"I’m not totally comfortable with the idea of counting ahead of time," said Macomb's Miller, noting it's a decision that local clerks will have to make. "I’d be afraid that there would be unintended, maybe chilling consequences."
Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, is the former Secretary of State and said that because 1,520 city and township local clerks run elections in Michigan, instead of the 83 county clerks, there is too much room for error.
"The biggest concern is how do you sequester and keep the integrity of those ballots," she said. "We have had people, clerks that have fiddled with ballots and they were caught,"
But Stewart said there are ways of managing those concerns.
"You can make a distinction between getting ready to scan and actually scanning the ballots. There are ways of opening envelopes and putting them in secure batches and coming back on Election Day," he said. "And the fact is that there are administrative controls for early voting, so the results aren’t leaking out ahead of time."
It's a system that Benson also has endorsed. She told lawmakers earlier this year that she wants clerks to be able to start counting ballots four days before Election Day.
"This will help ensure they are able to provide accurate election results as soon as possible following the close of polls on Election Day itself, while reducing the possibility for counting errors that occur when you're trying to count a significant number of ballots in a short period of time," she told the House Elections and Ethics committee.
The surge in absentee voters remains one of Benson's biggest concerns about the 2020 election and beyond, she told a Senate Elections panel on Oct. 30.
"Citizens are going to be voting by mail in increasing numbers more than ever before and we need to be prepared for it," she said. "If you educate voters and give them the opportunity to vote by mail, they will take advantage of that."
In the meantime, some clerks are using advanced technology to speed the process of counting absentee ballot. Many communities are using high-speed tabulators to more efficiently count ballots and Westland's LeBlanc has an envelope-opening machine that also cuts down the time it takes to get ballots counted.
Right To Tegister And Vote On Election Day Causing Headaches, Too
Voters also are taking the advantage of new law to register to vote in the month before an election.
In last week's election, more than 2,000 people registered to vote in the 14 days before the election, including 1,000 who registered and voted on Election Day, according to preliminary figures from the Secretary of State. One-third of those registering on Election Day were 18-21 years old.
"We’re optimistic that next year we’ll see even more people, particularly young people, take advantage of this opportunity and our democracy will be better for it," Benson said.
And that's also creating additional challenges for clerks, especially on Election Day, when most workers are tied up with running the actual election.
"We had three people register on Election Day," LeBlanc said. "I knew a mother and daughter who came in and I said 'happy birthday,' to the daughter. She looked at me and said, 'It's not my birthday,' and I said it had to be her birthday if she was coming in to register on Election Day."
Barton said there were only about four people who registered to vote in Rochester Hills on Election Day.
"But that’s time-consuming, so we have to hire multiple employees for that, too," she said. "Elections are kind of like Christmas — they’re exciting, they're expensive. Some people are naughty, some are nice. And they’re full of surprises."
Additional Election Resources Are Scarce
As with many public policy issues, much of the concern revolves on having enough resources to get the job done.
Benson asked lawmakers for an additional $3 million to help with the new voting laws, including purchasing more high-speed tabulators for clerks. But lawmakers made no promises.
"Lawmakers need to better resource election administrators so they can handle these voting surges adequately," said Perez of the Brennan Center. "Americans have the best democracy in the world and we don’t want to pay for it. It's not cheap to run elections well."
©2019 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.