Birmingham City Clerk Designee Alexandria Bingham organizes returned absentee ballots ahead of the  primary election.

Birmingham City Clerk Designee Alexandria Bingham organizes returned absentee ballots ahead of the primary election.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Clerks brace for primary amid pandemic

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Woodward Talk | Published July 27, 2020


BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP/BLOOMFIELD HILLS — The August primary election is coming next week, and neither rain nor sleet nor treacherous virus will stop residents from deciding the issues and races important to them.

Township Clerk Jan Roncelli, who is retiring when her term expires in November, said she’s already issued more absentee ballots than she did for the 2016 November presidential election.

“We’ve had to hire more part-time staff to keep up with the volume,” she said. “We’re very concerned how we will manage counting all the absentee ballots in one day.”

Michigan Senate Bill 757, introduced in January, would allow clerk staff in municipalities with a population of around 40,000 or more to open absentee envelopes for authorization the day before an election. That bipartisan bill is currently in a stalemate in the Senate, though.

Birmingham City Clerk Designee Alexandria Bingham said her office has already processed about five times as many absentee ballot requests as the 2016 August primary. Bingham, just appointed to the position earlier this spring, looks at the volume increase as an “exciting challenge.”

“It takes a lot of organization and preparation to keep up with the demand. I am really proud of how much work everyone in the clerk’s office has accomplished, and I love sharing and obtaining resources and tips with all of my fellow clerk friends throughout the country,” Bingham said in an email.

She said about 33% of registered voters in Birmingham have already obtained an absentee ballot, and more than 11% of those ballots have been returned.

Bloomfield Hills Clerk Amy Burton said the city has issued more than 1,300 absentee ballots. To compare, less than half that many ballots were issued in August 2018.

In Southfield Township, which processes votes for the villages of Franklin, Beverly Hills and Bingham Farms, Clerk Sharon Tischler said she’s been backed up for weeks just scanning in responses to the voter registration forms that the Michigan Secretary of State mailed to all residents.

“If they get emailed to us, we can’t scan the barcode, so we have to manually put it in, and it takes a while,” Tischler explained. “But it’s good. It’s less to do ahead of November.”

But a surge in absentee ballots isn’t the only issue clerks will deal with Aug. 4. They’ll also need to make sure voters who choose to go to the polls in person to cast a vote feel safe amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been very difficult to recruit election workers due to COVID,” Roncelli said.

Tischler has been looking for help, too, in e-blasts to residents.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter and the Oakland County Board of Commissioners have set funds aside for a “Protect Democracy Election Worker Recruitment and Retainment” program, which gives local municipal clerks the ability to pay election workers an additional $50.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections said in late July it would provide gloves, disposable masks, spray disinfectant or disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer, and face shields to precincts and workers, along with guidance for hygiene and social distancing.

While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made masks mandatory at all indoor public spaces in mid-July, the executive order doesn’t apply to election sites. Though voters are strongly encouraged to wear masks to vote on Aug. 4, they’re not required by law to do so.

Burton said she’s confident Bloomfield Hills residents will have a safe and secure experience voting Aug. 4 and again Nov. 3.

As residents cast their vote, via mail or in person, clerks want to be sure people don’t spoil their ballot. That’s particularly true during primary elections, when it’s imperative that voters stick to a single party on the ticket — you can either vote for Democratic or Republican candidates, but not a mix.

Ballots can also be spoiled if they’re completed in such a way that tally machines are unable to read the choices. That can happen when the ticket is marked with something besides blue or black ink — the only acceptable choices, according to Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown.

“We see more spoiled ballots in the August primary elections than any other election,” Brown said.

Following the August primary election of 2018, where precincts across Oakland County famously ran short on ballots before the polls closed, Brown said a large part of the problem was that voters were burning through multiple ballots trying to get it right.

“We had some voters spoiling as many as five ballots,” Brown said during an October 2018 interview following an investigation of those ballot shortages. “One municipality had a spoil rate of about 20%. A normal primary, that should be around 1% or 2%.”

With all they’re up against, clerks know the primary election will likely be just a taste of what’s to come for the presidential election in the fall.

“My biggest hope is that every voter gets the opportunity to vote and that they feel safe doing so, whether they choose to vote by mail, dropbox or in person on Election Day,” Bingham said.

On the ballot

Eagle voters will have a variety of issues to decide Aug. 4.

In Bloomfield Township, voters will choose party candidates for the position of supervisor, treasurer, clerk and several seats on the Board of Trustees.

Those in the Bloomfield Hills Schools district will decide whether or not to approve a $200 million capital improvements bond to repair buildings, update technology and furniture, and revamp recreational spaces, among other things.

Residents of Bloomfield Hills will decide whether they want to continue to fund a contract with Baldwin Public Library for library services for another six years or let the contract expire and lose access to the library.

Franklin voters will weigh in on whether the village’s charter should be amended to change the clerk’s job from an elected to an appointed position, expanding eligibility to candidates outside of Franklin.

For complete articles on these proposals, visit the Eagle page at and look for these headlines:
• Voters to decide $200 million bond for Bloomfield Hills Schools
• Bloomfield Hills asked to renew contract with Baldwin Library
• Franklin voters to decide how future clerks are seated

For coverage of the election, visit our website and look to the next issue of the Eagle.