As November looms, work is already underway to shore election procedures.
MICHIGAN — Lessons learned from the August primary are already being analyzed.
A record number of absentee ballots cast in this year’s primary election accentuate voters’ fervency to participate in local and state elections, but it also provides lessons that can be understood and used to make an even bigger turnout this fall go as smoothly as possible.
Prior to the election, there was concern for municipal and county clerks statewide as to how they would deal with absentee voting in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This election was a sort of trail run for what needs to be tweaked or added.
Largest Statewide Turnout Ever
In a conference call Aug. 6, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said just over 2.5 million people voted in the primary—”the largest turnout we have ever had in in August primary,” she said, surpassing the 2.2 million vote count from the 2018 primary.
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The 1.6 million votes cast via absentee ballots were also a record, bettering the 1.3 million such ballots cast during the 2016 presidential election.
“When you have multiple options and everyone is educated to take advantage of those options, voters choose options that work most for them,” she said.
Local Clerks Inundated With Absentee Ballots
Lansing Clerk Chris Swope said his city saw “more than three times” the number of ballots cast via absentee as opposed to in person. A total of 18,840 absentee ballots were counted, as opposed to only 4,700 in person.
In Dearborn, Clerk George Darany said the absentee vote count was at 11,310. It nearly doubled the approximate 6,000 individuals who voted at polling locations in the city’s 48 precincts.
It exceeded his own expectations.
The Friday before the election, Darany said 15,180 absentee ballots had been issued to about 65,000 registered voters. At that time approximately 7,200 of those ballots had been returned, with Darany predicting at least 10,000 absentee ballots returned by the conclusion of election day.
“We were pretty close on that (prediction),” he said.
Slowed by Counting, Technology
Swope said his office had hoped to have previously approved high-speed tabulators available for the primary, but a vendor supply issue occurred.
“The biggest hurdle is the amount of time we have to process the absentee ballots,” Swope said. “We ended up finishing up at about 1 a.m., so not as early as I’d like but earlier than I’d fear we might end. It gives me some thoughts about what we need to do differently before November.”
The city of Dearborn finished counting 100% of its absentee ballots at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday. Darany said voters wouldn’t have known of any issues, adding that between polling hours there were few minor concerns at actual locations.
However, what he described as a transmitting mechanism didn’t take properly. After a handful of attempts— only 12 of 48 precincts could be transmitted— a technician was called in. That technician had difficulty and called a couple others for backup.
Darany said a few tabulators did not function in the counting room, causing workers to stay two or three extra hours longer than necessary.
He said between 25 and 30 absentee ballots were received after the filing deadline on election day, so they did not count.
Statewide Remedies for November
Benson expects at least 3 million statewide voters to cast absentee ballots this November, based on a combination of those who requested ballots for August and those already on the permanent list.
She called for the U.S. Postal Service to be totally funded. She used the example of Wayne County, which finished processing the final ballots just before the end of Wednesday.
More than 10,000 absentee ballots were rejected statewide as of the morning of Aug. 6, with the Department of State not fully knowing the total breakdown of why certain ballots were rejected.
“If we give our clerks an extra day on the front end to begin processing those ballots, they can have those extra 12 hours or more to prepare for election day and expect results on the other side,” Benson said.
Other key legislative changes she proposed to adjust for mail-in challenges included updating current state law so that ballots received after election day still count, and anticipating that some signatures are mismatched but that such ballots should be reviewed by local clerks to confirm identities and not wrongly discard ballots.
“Voters’ rights should not be subject to the capacity of the U.S. Postal Service,” she said.
Machinery and Legislative Action
Darany said the key to a swift count of ballots is good technology.
“We need high-speed tabulators,” he said. “Everybody that does X amount of volume needs the high speed. We could have gone through it a lot quicker, which means we don’t need to open them up early or start earlier in the morning. … If the state is concerned about getting them done quickly, invest in high-speed tabulators.”
High-speed tabulators cost approximately $35,000 each, he noted, and the city needs a minimum of four tabulators “to do it right.” He said they can tabulate about 50 absentee ballots per minute, as opposed to current methodology that processes three or four per minute.
Darany planned to “immediately” discuss the investment of such machines with his city council. He said if his office had them, they would have finished counting at 8:30 p.m. election day rather than 3:30 a.m. the next morning.
“If the Legislature doesn’t act, we’re going to be really reaching the limits of what our current system will provide, both with people and machines,” Benson said.
As a former state representative, Darany is skeptical about legislative revisions.
“I was a state representative and I know how that works,” he said. “It doesn’t happen quickly, it doesn’t happen easily, it’s hard to get consensus on both sides of the aisle for these things. I don’t think that happens anytime soon.”
More Bodies at the Polls
In May Benson’s office started an extensive effort to recruit about 6,500 new polling workers for the August and November elections, which she said “particularly helped us on election day.”
“There were three polling locations in the Detroit area that opened late due to a shortage of election workers,” Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for the Department of State, said at about 11 a.m. election day. “However, our team sent out about 35 workers to help fill those gaps.”
She added, “Every jurisdiction in the state was sent PPE from our Bureau of Elections several weeks ago.”
Swope said his precincts experienced “some last-minute cancellations” for polling workers but had enough to survive the day.
“5,000 (in-person voters) in a city of our size is a relatively light turnout,” he said.
Benson said “every data point” has showed local and state officials “how to run an election in the midst of a pandemic.”
“We can make these changes, there’s nothing standing in our way,” she said.