Signs at Detroit’s Frederick Douglass Academy encouraged social distancing.
Photo by Franz Knight
Signs at Detroit’s Frederick Douglass Academy encouraged social distancing. Photo by Franz Knight

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called the August primary “momentous.” Here’s why she said it served as a preview for the Presidential election in November.

MICHIGAN — Michigan’s Tuesday primary election is on track to set records yet again, and despite the overall volume of votes cast, the state expects to have those votes counted relatively quickly. 

Things were even more dramatically successful in Genesee County, where only counting absentee and early votes on Friday, the county posted a 60% voter turnout. That compares to a normal turnout in an August primary of only 15%, explained John Gleason from the Genesee County Clerk’s office. 

“This is empirical evidence that if we give people the right way to vote, they’ll vote,” Gleason told The ‘Gander. “This really validates mail elections. How can you say mail-in voting doesn’t work?” 

As for how long it will take to count the votes, state and county officials are optimistic that results will be settled by Wednesday night. 

“I would estimate based on the efficiency we’ve seen today,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters shortly before polls closed Tuesday, “that many places may finish by midnight, many places may finish by midday tomorrow and my hope is that by late in the day tomorrow we’ll have most results reported.”

Kalamazoo County, in particular, set a goal of having their unofficial report completed by 1 a.m. Wednesday, said Sarah Joshi with the Kalamazoo County Clerk’s office. 

“It’s just volume,” she told The ‘Gander. “It’s just more work for these absentee voter counting boards. They’ve had to beef up their staffs in the local jurisdictions.”

By 3 a.m. Wednesday all 107 precincts in Kalamazoo County had reported preliminary results. Not all absentee ballots had been counted, however.

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And while the county overall had a lower rate of absentee ballots being sent back in, that didn’t mean they weren’t filled out. Joshi explained that ballots dropped off on election day get counted as election day voters, and so show up in records as absentee ballots that never got cast. 

“What some of the locals are finding is people are bringing their absentee ballots into the precinct, then they get counted as election-day voters,” Joshi explained. “People are bringing their absentee ballots back into the precinct either because they’ve changed their mind about something or they’ve made a mistake or they just felt more secure with the process.”

Even so, Joshi said that several townships in Kalamazoo County, including Oshtemo and Kalamazoo Townships, had seen more votes by absentee collected before polls opened than voted at all in the last August primary.

Since the novel coronavirus took root in the state, Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have been mailing all registered voters applications for absentee ballots. The turnout in the following May municipal elections in communities across the state shattered previous records, The ‘Gander reported. This year is also the first election cycle Michigan voters could cast ballots by mail without providing a reason, part of a slate of voter access reforms passed by ballot initiative in 2018.

“It’s really been a momentous election day and a preview of what we can expect in November,” Benson told reporters. “What we saw was enormously high turnout, a lot of people voting by mail, people still choosing to vote in person … things went smoothly, we had precincts staffed around the state with the 6,000 extra volunteers we recruited over the last six months.”

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But that preview for November comes with challenges that Benson and clerks will need to overcome. Those include the time it takes to process such a large number of ballots, the risks seen by other states posed by long lines during a pandemic and the fallibility of the postal service during these uncertain times. 

“I am extremely pleased with how things went today,” Benson said. “The biggest uncertainty that’s still evolving, of course, is the postal service.”

Benson explained that the postal service is overwhelmed and underfunded during the pandemic leading to sizable backlogs. With any ballot received after polls close being invalidated, that unreliability risks disenfranchising thousands of Michiganders. To counter this, Benson is deploying more drop boxes to collect ballots across the state.

This article has been updated to reflect progress counting votes.