New teams of ballot counters and updated tabulators: These are just some of the ways Michigan clerks are preparing for its unprecedented election.

MICHIGAN—A record number of voters requested absentee ballots in Michigan this election. 

In a state where President Donald Trump won the smallest margin of victory in 2016, every vote counts in the 2020 election. Analysts predict a record number of mail-in ballots will be cast during the coronavirus pandemic as people choose to vote safely from their homes.

Around Michigan, local city clerks are already assembling teams to process ballots.

“I’ve never seen it this busy for an election,” said City of Taylor Clerk Cindy Bower, whose city of just over 61,000 people had already received nearly 15,000 absentee ballots as of Oct. 15.

While absentee voting gained much of its fanfare after a 2018 ruling allowed any Michigan voter the right, it’s hardly new to many local clerks, who have been counting absentee ballots for years as part of a well-planned process that is designed to be secure. They gave The ‘Gander an inside look at the process. 

Editor’s note: On Oct. 16, a panel of three Republican judges appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder reversed a lower court ruling that ensured all ballots postmarked before Election Day would be counted. Now, a ballot must be received by the local clerk by 8 p.m. election night, Nov. 3.

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Orchestrated and Catalogued

Peg Marentette, a clerk’s assistant from Madison Heights who’s been counting absentee ballots for about eight years, told The ‘Gander that the process is meticulously orchestrated and catalogued.

“From what I’ve seen and what we do, I would say there’s no need to worry [about voter fraud],” she said.

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“All of the ballots that we count go through a process of checking them against our reports to make sure that everything we have is in our possession. We have teams of two that work in the different precincts and double check the ballot numbers against those on the outside of the envelopes against the report list from our system.

She trusts the system so much, she’s successfully voted absentee for the last 10 years. 

“We know how many we send out and we know how many we send back. They’re all accounted for.” 

Madison Heights Clerk’s Assistant Peg Marentette

New Hires, New Machines in Michigan 

In Taylor, Democratic political party representatives have checked in on the process to make sure everything is up to official standards, and Republican representatives are expected to do the same in the near future, according to Karl Ziomek, the city’s communications director.

The sheer number of ballots has necessitated the hiring of a large number of workers, which will add to the culture of accountability and watchfulness, he explained. 

To handle the massive influx of ballots, Ziomek said that a “load of election volunteers” and part-time staff have been brought on board. These workers follow strict standards to ensure that ballots are properly and correctly counted, he said.

City workers are aware of the pressure they face to get things right, and are working to live up to the high standards of the voting public.

“It’s a job and they have rules and regulations. During an election like this there are a lot of challenges. This nation is divided and I think people are challenging a lot of things, and these workers are on the frontlines of this activity.”

Taylor Communications Director Karl Ziomek

“The reality is that the whole concept of large scale fraud and things like that is just unsupported, it’s never taken place and that has been confirmed by both the Democrats and the Republicans.”

Ziomek said the city is prepared to handle the influx—if the busy August primary was any indication.

He expects Bower to deliver the already-collected ballots to Wayne County’s offices during the 1-2 a.m. range on election night.

In Traverse City, City Clerk Benjamin Marentette is expecting a “historic number” of ballots and preparing his team to tackle the task of getting them all counted. 

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“We’re up over 300% more at this point than the election process four years ago,” he said. “We’ve really been ramping up our ability and resources to handle all of those ballots.”

Among the steps his department has taken are creating “one large absentee voter counting board” rather than the usual six, while assigning a large team of people to process ballots. The city also purchased a high-speed tabulator to count ballots more quickly.

According to Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondrop, who has spent several years working on teams of people counting absentee ballots, the process is simple and secure, and involves the feeding of ballots into a tabulator machine.

“We’ve been doing absentee ballots for years and years, for many elections. There’s just more people using it now—that’s the change. Every ballot we receive, we put through the tabulator and count it.”

Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondrop

Democrats, Republicans Work Together in Madison Heights

In Madison Heights, the city will also be taking advantage of the new rules to begin prepping the ballots one day ahead of time, City Clerk Cheryl Rottman said.

The city is expecting an increase of over 100% in absentee ballots, and has separated ballot counters into teams of Republicans and Democrats as part of a robust system of checks and balances.

Fourteen people have been hired for Election Day to assist in the ballot-counting process, and the city has gone to great lengths to ensure security.

“There are a lot of checks and balances that go into the absentee ballot processing,” Rottman said. “We account for every ballot we issue and every ballot we receive, and we check each signature to make sure it’s the same as the names on the ballots we sent out.

“There’s not one person or two people overlooking all of the ballots, it’s a whole series of people.”

Madison Heights Clerk Cheryl Rottman

At the end of the process, a separate group of workers verifies the number of ballots issued against the number of ballots received, she added.

“We will be opening but not counting, the pre-election process will have our counters open envelopes and verify piles of 50 before counting them on the next day,” she said. “It’s a very secure process.”