Farmington Deputy Clerk Jennifer Tomlinson scans absentee ballots into the system.

Farmington Deputy Clerk Jennifer Tomlinson scans absentee ballots into the system.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

Local clerks discuss absentee ballot increases, pandemic impacts in Farmington, Hills

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published July 27, 2020


FARMINGTON/HILLS — The coronavirus has certainly had an impact on almost everything in the country, including elections.

Even without living amid a pandemic, local clerks had been gearing up to see an increase in voters casting absentee ballots for this year’s elections following Proposition 18-3 in 2018, which allowed for no-reason absentee ballot voting.

Farmington City Clerk Mary Mullison said her office has seen more people apply for absentee ballots for the Aug. 4 primary than Farmington saw vote in total in the 2016 primary. In 2016, only 22% of voters cast ballots, but this year, Mullison’s office has already issued absentee ballots to 33% of registered voters.

Farmington has issued 2,545 absentee ballots, and 612 had been returned as of July 20.

Farmington Hills City Clerk Pam Smith is also seeing an increased amount, by about 3,500 requests, of voters choosing to vote absentee this year. Smith said that, as of July 20, her office had issued approximately 21,000 absentee ballots and had received roughly 6,000, or 27.5%, back.

“I think COVID-19 definitely put a spotlight on absentee ballots. Obviously, it’s always been there, but no-reason (ballots) are fairly new, so more people are taking advantage of it. I think this is really putting a spotlight on the ability to vote this way. I could see us eventually moving toward all mail-in down the road. Probably not in my time here as clerk, but I think it’ll be a slow move in that direction,” Smith said.

Mullison is happy to see so many voters choosing to vote absentee, because it provides a safer method to cast a vote and keeps her election inspectors a little safer due to less contact with fewer people. She also believes that while voters may be choosing absentee for health and safety reasons now, it’s also increasing their education on the absentee ballot process for the future.

Kim Murphy-Kovalick, a state field representative for Voters not Politicians, an organization focused on increasing voter education and access, said it’s especially important for clerks to push absentee ballots right now for the health and safety of the population.

“We don’t want to crowd polling locations. If it’s at all possible for people to get into their clerk’s office and request and then submit their absentee ballots on the spot, then we can keep people out of polling locations on Election Day,” she said. “It’s especially important right now, but moving forward, there’s also the issue that we want to reduce every possible barrier that there is for people to cast their ballot.”

The pandemic hasn’t only had an impact on the number of absentee ballots local clerks are seeing, but also on the financial investment it takes to conduct an election.

“When you put your budget together for the year before, you’re looking at the past as to what you’ve used and projecting forward to what you need,” Mullison said. “We didn’t anticipate having twice as many absentee ballots, so all of that mailing is more cost … especially with adding COVID-19 onto it and making the percentages even higher.”

On top of mailing costs, Smith and Mullison both said the need to provide personal protective equipment and other pandemic-related resources to voters and election staff has added to the overall totals. While some personnel expenditures have increased, the clerks said the costs there are pale in comparison.

The trend of increased absentee voters may not go away after the pandemic, either. Smith believes that as more people become educated about the process and feel comfortable with it, voters may end up going that route for future elections.

“It seems to fit more with modern life at this point,” Mullison said of absentee voting. “I think there will always be people who want to have the experience of going into a polling place, but I think as fewer people go in there, it’s going to be less of a seminal experience going to vote.”

Mullison added that more people potentially voting absentee could mean less polling places open down the road.

“If, say, 70% of our people are voting absentee, then we don’t need to have six precincts,” she said. “In Farmington, we’re not far flung. We’re in about two square miles. It’s not like if we closed down a polling place, we’d be disenfranchising any population.”

Both the Farmington and Farmington Hills clerks offices will be open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. the Saturday before the Aug. 4 primary for election-related needs. The last day by law an absentee ballot can be mailed to voters is 5 p.m. July 31.