While vote-by-mail has resonated with Michigan voters, local election officials and city clerks say they are worried there’s ‘not enough time’ to collect them all.
MICHIGAN — Absentee ballot requests in Lansing are historic.
“(It is) four times what we’ve ever done in a primary election,” Lansing Clerk Chris Swope said. “It’s more than we’ve ever done in a presidential or gubernatorial election.”
As of July 31, over 22,000 absentee ballots had been issued to the city’s approximate 85,000 registered voters.
Other than Swope, clerks in Dearborn, Grand Rapids, Port Huron and Traverse City have witnessed increased absentee requests and all say it’s a combination of the passing of Proposal 3 in the November 2018 election, along with the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the state and national economy.
In Dearborn, 15,180 absentee ballots had been issued to about 65,000 registered voters as of July 31. Approximately 7,200 of those ballots had been returned, with Dearborn Clerk George Darany predicting at least 10,000 absentee ballots would be returned by the conclusion of election day.
‘Secure, Proven, Safe and Accurate’
President Trump has denounced mail-in voting as “inaccurate and fraudulent.” It’s an inconsistent viewpoint when compared to what Michigan’s local clerks are seeing in their communities.
Traverse City Clerk Benjamin Marentette said July 31 that “a historic number of voters are voting by absentee,” with the city experiencing a 286% increase when compared to four years ago. There are fewer than 13,000 registered voters.
By the end of July, Traverse City already had more people vote absentee than voted altogether four years ago.
“I think the folks in Traverse City really recognize that absentee voting has been a secure, proven, safe and accurate method for voting for years and years and years,” Marentette said. “There are some folks who ask about the process. I’m always glad when they do. At the end of those conversations, the sense I have is that people walk away understanding it’s secure.”
Grand Rapids Clerk Joel Hondorp was not surprised that by July 31, nearly 60% of the approximate 58,000 mailed absentee ballots had been returned. The city has had one of the highest absentee returns in the state on average, he said.
He said that while voters “have to have some kind of responsibility to know what the different rules are,” information sharing on social media and between neighborhood associations has bridged the gap between what’s fact and what’s fiction.
“Most voters are thankful for the right to vote at home,” Swope said. “I get that all the time, ‘Thank you for making it easy,’ or, ‘Thank you for making sure we’re aware of this.’”
Safety Mechanisms in Place
Personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves, face shields, disinfect wipes and hand sanitizer, are commonplace at all polling locations.
Clerks said that masks are being recommended to in-person voters, though are not required to be worn. Social distancing measures will be adhered, with polling places utilizing painters’ tape to signify to voters where to stand.
Marentette said Traverse City stated that “everything that voters touch” will be sanitized between each and every use.” He has referred to the expertise of a bipartisan coalition of medical experts and election officials.
Port Huron Clerk Cyndee Jonseck said workers will be required to don masks, while voters will be “strongly encouraged” to wear them as well. Nobody will be turned away for refusing to wear one.
A New Generation Takes Heed
The mixture of age and a deadly pandemic has simultaneously affected the older and younger generations who are working the election.
Many polling workers, whose average age hovers around 74 years old, have decided to sit out the August and November elections. That is the case in Grand Rapids, with its 76 precincts and four or five polling workers on average per precinct.
“It’s been a full-court press to recruit election workers,” Hondorp said. “The age has come down; a lot of people have stepped up for those who made that heartbreaking decision to stay home.”
Optimism has faded for older polling workers in Lansing, which has all 45 precincts open.
“We felt like we were in pretty good shape a couple weeks ago, but as the day has gotten closer, we’ve had a lot of election workers notice they weren’t feeling comfortable with the current health situation,” Swope said.
In Traverse City a few older poll workers said “they don’t feel comfortable working the polls” at the city’s nine precincts this election, Marentette stated. But for several years a number of younger poll workers have taken the proverbial baton and made themselves part of democracy, with what Marentette calls “a deep bench of backup workers.”
Darany said “probably 30 to 40 folks” decided not to return to polling locations this year due to the pandemic. About 90% of polling workers at the city’s 48 precincts were 65 years and older.
However, he said the city has done a good job recruiting younger people — “so many that are in the 18-to-21 age range that we never had before.” They have been part of seven training classes, preparing to work the city’s 48 precincts. There are about 220 total polling workers.
“We want younger folks to learn the process and stay with us a long, long time,” Darany said.
Polling workers have been prepared for multiple scenarios, he added, such as if absentee voters who already filled ballots come to vote in person.
‘Not Enough Time’
In May, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced her office would use $4.5 million in federal CARES Act funding to send every registered Michigander an absentee ballot application. On July 31, Benson encouraged absentee voters to hand-deliver ballots to local municipal offices rather than wait on the slowed U.S. Postal Service.
The city of Dearborn already had about 5,000 residents on a permanent absentee voter list.
In Port Huron, 4,207 ballots had been issued as of July 31 — or over 3,000 more absentee ballots than in the same election in 2016. The city has a little over 22,000 registered voters.
Port Huron Clerk Cyndee Jonseck, like Darany, said the state’s mailing of absentee applications impacted voter lists.
“That is how we have seen our permanent absentee ballot list grow the past few elections,” Jonseck said.
Swope, who is also the president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, had advocated in the State Legislature in terms of trying to get legislation passed in relation to starting to open absentee ballots one day early.
Nothing changed and now clerks are working with who and what they have.
“Those 13 hours is probably not enough time for most of us to process what we have to process,” Swope said.