State, county clerks outline absentee voting process

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 8, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — Early voting, mail in voting, absentee voting, in-person absentee voting, in-person precinct voting on Election Day.

There’s a whole lot of ways to do one really important thing.

Ahead of the Nov. 3 election, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on the ins and outs of voting options and which options are best suited for whom.

The method that’s getting the most buzz these days is absentee voting. Some states in the union call it mail-in voting, but in the Mitten it’s voting by absentee, and sending in the ballot via the United States Postal Service is just one way voters can return their absentee ballot to their clerk.

No matter how they plan to return their ballots, absentee voting is more popular and more utilized than ever, largely because of accessibility. In 2018, Michiganders approved an amendment to the state constitution that expanded voting access in a number of ways, including allowing any voter to request an absentee ballot without providing a reason.

“Voting from home is safe, secure and convenient. In Michigan you can cast your absentee ballot many ways — by mail, via drop box or in person at your local clerk’s office. You’re also welcome to request your ballot in person at the clerk and then also cast it immediately — our form of early voting — beginning 40 days out from the election,” Tracy Wimmer, the director of media relations for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, said in an email.

The reason absentee voting is getting a lot of attention recently is because some believe that mailing in absentee ballots could pose security issues or overload the Postal Service, which is losing revenue and operating in the red when pension and other post-employment benefit liabilities are assessed.

In Sterling Heights, the city received 165 ballots that arrived late but were postmarked prior to the August primary election.

While Sterling Heights City Clerk Melanie Ryska said it’s not uncommon for the city to receive “a few ballots here and there” after the election, she called the number that came in recently “quite an anomaly.” She said she has spoken to the local postmaster, who is investigating what happened.

“He is very sensitive to the fact that election mail is priority,” she said.

Benson urged the state Legislature to pass some bills in order to prevent absentee ballot voters from being disenfranchised in the future. She said around 10,600 ballots were rejected in the August primary, and over 80% of them were rejected due to coming in late or for problems dealing with verifying signatures. She added that many of those rejections were preventable.

“The Postal Service is ready to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives. Postmaster General DeJoy’s No. 1 priority is to deliver election mail on time and within the Postal Service’s well-established standards. Effective Oct. 1, he is committed to engage standby resources in all areas of Postal Service operations, including transportation, to satisfy any unforeseen demand,” reads a  media statement on the Postal Service’s website.

To put that into context, the site says the Postal Service delivers 433 million pieces of mail each day. So even if all Americans were to vote by mail this year, 330 million ballots over the course of the election would only be three quarters of what the Postal Service delivers in a single day.

“The Postal Service has more than enough capacity, including collection boxes and processing equipment, to handle all election mail this year, which is predicted to amount to less than 2% of total mail volume from mid-September to Election Day,” the Postal Service statement continued.

To be safe, Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown would love to see as many people as are able to return their absentee ballots to a dropbox at their precinct instead of using the mail.

“One, you don’t have to worry about the cost of postage. And two, you don’t have to worry about the timing of the USPS. I hope they get the resources they need and the support they need, but we are not a postmark state,” Brown explained. “That means, even if you put your ballot in your mailbox or hand it to a USPS worker at the post office and watch them time stamp it, it doesn’t matter. If it’s not in your clerk’s hands by 8 p.m. on election night, it won’t be counted.”

According to Benson’s office, there was a record-breaking number of voters in the state to cast an absentee ballot in the August primary with around 1.6 million. With that in mind, Wimmer said the SOS has allocated federal coronavirus aid funds to be distributed to any jurisdiction that might need extra dropboxes, high-speed ballot tabulators or other absentee ballot processing equipment.

In July, Bloomfield Township Clerk Jan Roncelli said it would be helpful if precincts were able to begin counting absentee ballots the day before the election, a move supported by numerous clerks across the state and one that was actually proposed in a set of Senate bills earlier this year by Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly.

SB 756 and 757 would allow clerks in cities and townships with 10,000 or more active registered voters to begin processing absentee ballots the Monday before an election as part of their preprocessing work as a way to streamline counting and reporting on election night.

That bill stalled over the summer, and progress hasn’t been made since.

Opponents of early counting, like Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, have cited issues with early results reporting as potential problems, potentially swaying voters later in the day on Election Day as numbers slip out from poll workers who have begun counting absentee ballots.

Several attempts to reach Johnson for comment weren’t returned before press time.

Similar bills in the House were proposed, HB 5987-5991, and Wimmer said the SOS would press the Legislature to pass those measures.

Among the bills Benson supports, HB 5987 would affect mailed ballots postmarked by Election Day — those could still be counted if they arrived up to 48 hours after polls close. And under HB 5991, voters would hear from local clerks if an absentee ballot signature failed to match the registered one.

“With turnout and absentee ballot numbers expected to double or even triple in November, we could be looking at tens of thousands of Michigan citizens disenfranchised if the Legislature again fails to act,” Benson said in a statement.

For now, clerks can do what they can to prepare for Election Day by pre-processing ballots by removing mailing envelopes — not to be confused with secrecy envelopes — as they check for signature matches.

If a signature doesn’t match or is missing altogether, the clerk’s office attempts to reach out to that voter. So make sure you include some type of contact information, like a phone number or email, with your ballot in case of a discrepancy.

“I know Ferndale, for instance, received 25%-30% of all its absentee ballots in the last 24 hours of the primary election, so they just got inundated with a ton at the end,” Brown said. “So that’s why we really want you to return your ballot early.”

Brown added that if you’re worried about an “October surprise” — don’t be. You can always purposely go to your municipal clerk and spoil your ballot.

“If you return your ballot early, and a candidate you voted for comes out later and says they hate puppies, for instance, and you just can’t vote for that person anymore because you love puppies, you can spoil that ballot. You’re not stuck,” she explained.

Then there’s always the traditional option of voting in person. Wimmer said the SOS is working with an organization called Democracy MVP to recruit election workers and assist municipal precincts with costs for personal protective equipment and other needs to keep poll workers and voters safe amid the pandemic.

Luckily, COVID-19 was no match for democracy during the statewide primacy, as nearly 1 million Michiganders voted in person. In 2016, the presidential primary yielded just over 1.3 million votes in total.

Staff Writer Eric Czarnik contributed to this report.