(TNS) — The number of people requesting absentee ballots in Michigan has skyrocketed, but the tedious, time-consuming process of securely processing those ballots remains the same.
Clerks across the state are urging the Michigan legislature to adopt laws that would give them at least seven days before Election Day to prepare and starting processing absentee ballots. Current law prevents them from opening envelopes until 7 a.m. on the day of an election, which could lead to results being delayed for days.
The Senate has passed a bill that would allow clerks in large communities to preprocess ballots one day early. The House Elections and Ethics committee was expected to discuss the matter Wednesday.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said this week more than 2.39 million residents have requested absentee ballots. That’s more than a third of active Michigan voters. Benson’s office expects the number to reach 3 million before the Nov. 3 presidential election. Absentee ballots are processed by counting boards in an assembly line style, according to Delhi Township Clerk Evan Hope.
“It’s meticulous and time-consuming,” Hope said. “The average person, unless they have worked elections, doesn’t realize this. It’s not as simple as just running a ballot through a tabulator.”
The process of issuing an absentee ballot starts with the clerk’s office comparing a voter’s signature on their application to their signature in the Michigan Qualified Voter File, said East Lansing Clerk Jennifer Shuster.
“That’s the signature that is on file when you go to the Secretary of State and get your driver’s license or state ID,” Shuster said. “Then we have to make sure we are issuing the correct ballot style.”
Every voting precinct can have a different ballot style, Shuster said. In East Lansing, three school districts have board elections and each will have a different ballot style.
“Then we issue voters the next ballot number in the sequence, we make sure that the labeling is right on those ballots, we stuff them into envelopes and they go through a double-check process before they are mailed out,” Shuster said.
After a voter fills out their ballot and it’s received by a clerk’s office, election workers must wait until Election Day to open the outer mailing envelope. Then someone else opens an inner secrecy sleeve. The ballot is then removed, unfolded, and flattened to prepare it to be tabulated by a ballot-counting machine.
Hope and Shuster said the August primary election was a good dry run for what to expect in November. There are 7.7 million registered voters in Michigan. Of those people, 6.7 million are active voters, more than 2.5 million people voted in the primary election and 1.6 million of those voters cast absentee ballots.
Clerks around the state have hired extra elections workers and the Secretary of State’s office has recruited more than 20,000 to help.
“We have all the equipment and people. Now all we need is more time,” Hope said.
The Delhi Township’s clerks office is preparing to send between 9,000 and 10,000 absentee ballots to voters, making up nearly half of the jurisdiction’s registered voters, according to Hope, whose office has increased its absentee counting board from 20 people to 38 people for the November election.
Barb Byrum, Ingham County Clerk, said election officials across Michigan have been “imploring the legislature” to allow for more time to process absentee ballots. The Michigan Senate voted 34-2 on Sept. 15 to approve a bill that allows clerks to open ballots on Nov. 2, one day ahead of the general election.
That’s not enough time to process ballots and ensure timely results, said Byrum.
“Clerks are not allowed to actually start processing ballots, which is very time consuming, until Election Day,” Byrum said. “We have been imploring the legislature for more time since February because we are seeing such a large increase in absentee ballots that need to be processed. The time it takes to process ballots is necessary to ensure the secrecy of voters and the security of our elections.”
If the bill is passed in the House and signed into law, clerks in cities with more than 25,000 residents will be able to open the outer envelope of an absentee ballot between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. the day before the election. The ballots wouldn’t be removed from the secrecy sleeve, which would be placed in a secured box and examined by a county canvasser. Ballots still could not be processed or counted until Election Day.
Shuster said she is “definitely one of those clerks that think we need more time to count absentee ballots.” The East Lansing clerk’s office has doubled its absentee counting board from 15 to 30 people ahead of the November election.
“This year is going to change elections going forward,” Shuster said. “More and more people are going to opt to vote by mail or early in person using absentee ballots. So, we are looking at this becoming the norm, and I think our ability to process those ballots needs to change to accommodate that.”
The legislation that passed the Senate would make little to no difference for bigger cities processing more than 10,000 ballots, Hope said.
“It doesn’t give us that much of a head start, but it’s better than nothing,” Hope said. “For bigger cities, 10 hours on a Monday isn’t going to make a huge difference. We’re already really busy the day before the election trying to get everything set up and in order. So it’s something but more will need to be done eventually.”
©2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.