Sterling clerk promotes ballot drop boxes ahead of elections

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 21, 2020

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STERLING HEIGHTS — Weeks after the Aug. 4 primary elections, the Sterling Heights clerk’s office is taking inventory of what went well and what it can improve as the Nov. 3 presidential election draws closer.

Sterling Heights City Clerk Melanie Ryska said her election team of volunteers were exhausted by the busyness involved with taking in so many absentee ballots in the August election — often attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Michiganders cast an estimated 2.5 million votes, and 1.6 million of those were absentee, she explained.

“In elections, we don’t quit when you’re tired,” Ryska said. “We quit when the work is done. Despite all that exhaustion, it was a positive election. There was some excitement in the air, but it was good, considering everything.”

She said a special group of election workers participate in an absentee voter counting board process for which they are sequestered in a room.

“They have no access to the outside world,” she said. “They are the ones who open the ballots and process them and get them tabulated.”

Ryska said one of the biggest successes her office had was opening a dedicated election center at the Sterling Heights Senior Center building that opened in July, before the primary election. The center fulfilled local residents’ needs by answering questions, registering voters and handing out absentee ballots, she said. As a bonus, it reduced foot traffic at City Hall, thus facilitating social distancing, Ryska explained.

Another city success was installing more ballot drop boxes in the city. Ryska added that the city now has seven boxes in total. One is at City Hall, another is at the election center, and five exterior drive-up boxes are outside the police station and fire stations Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5.

“It was a huge help in this election and for preparing for the increases in AVs,” she said. “Our AVs tripled in this election compared to the August ’16 primary.”

However, the city hopes to not have a repeat of what happened after the primary, when it received 165 ballots that arrived late but were postmarked prior to Election Day.

While 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.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn 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.

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.

Ryska said Sterling Heights has 91,500 registered voters, and “those voters are my priority,” she said. She said residents should use the website mi.gov/vote to register to vote, apply for an absentee ballot or check the status of their vote once it’s cast.

In Sterling Heights’ favor, she said, it successfully installed more ballot drop boxes prior to the primary this year as a way to assure residents that their votes will be secure and counted.

“We kind of knew ahead of time that the post office was going to be overwhelmed,” she said. “That was another reason why the city was proactive in installing them. We wanted to get ahead of the game because the post office was going to be inundated.”

She added that she wants even more voters to know about the drop boxes before the general election.

“We’re going to be launching a big campaign,” she said. “We’re working on that now to encourage voters to use our drop boxes rather than U.S. mail. Our team empties our drop boxes daily. We receive everything in the boxes within 24 hours.”

Find out more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling the clerk’s office at (586) 446-2420. Find out more about state voting resources by visiting www.mi.gov/vote.

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