On July 15, Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds Fred Miller, left, and Macomb County Director of Elections Michael Grix took delivery of a shipment of personal protective equipment to be used by local municipalities in the 343 voting precincts for the Aug. 4 primary election. 

On July 15, Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds Fred Miller, left, and Macomb County Director of Elections Michael Grix took delivery of a shipment of personal protective equipment to be used by local municipalities in the 343 voting precincts for the Aug. 4 primary election. 

Photo provided by Macomb County Clerk’s Office

St. Clair Shores, Macomb County clerks prepare for upcoming elections

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published July 24, 2020


ST. CLAIR SHORES — Mary Kotowski has been the clerk in St. Clair Shores for more than two decades, and in that time she has never issued as many absentee ballots as she has in 2020.

Fourteen thousand absentee ballots have been issued to St. Clair Shores voters for the Aug. 4 primary election and, as of mid-July, 27% had been returned. She’s expecting record participation for the primary election, fueled mainly by absentee voters.

The clerk’s office in City Hall, 27600 Jefferson Ave., will be open for voters to register to vote or to apply for and receive an absentee ballot from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 1, and from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Aug. 3.

Kotowski said she believes the pandemic and the mailing by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to every registered voter alerting them to the fact that they are able to vote absentee for new reason under Proposal 18-3 has contributed to the higher number of voters requesting an absentee ballot.

“People didn’t know that everybody could vote from (an) absentee ballot,” Kotowski said, explaining that from the perspective of her office, the mailing was a good thing because it led to residents requesting an absentee ballot earlier rather than later.

As of July 21, Macomb County Clerk Fred Miller said the number of Macomb County voters requesting absentee ballots for the primary is 46% higher than the total number of voters — both absentee and on election day — from the 2016 primary. A total of 171,126 absentee ballots had been issued to county voters and 58,655 ballots, or 34% of them, had already been returned and processed as of July 21.

In 2016, Macomb County had a total of 117,297 voters participate in total, of which 62,538 ballots, or 53.3%, were absentee. That election saw a 19% countywide voter turnout.

“Clearly the new rights for Michigan voters due to Proposal 3, which allows any eligible voter to vote an absentee ballot, is a likely factor in driving the higher number of requested absentee ballots,” Miller said July 21. “The numbers indicate a heightened level of interest in voting.”

St. Clair Shores had a 22.1% voter turnout in the 2016 primary election, with 10,538 voters casting a ballot. So far, 14,000 St. Clair Shores voters have requested and received an absentee ballot.

The St. Clair Shores City Clerk’s office cannot begin processing or counting the votes until polls open on Election Day, however, so Kotowski expects results to be delayed from the primary election.

“I have three high-speed letter openers, so that will help (but) it’s such a labor-intensive process,” Kotowski said. “The labor intense part is getting those stubs detached and getting them out and unfolding them. Think about opening 14,000 envelopes without slicing a ballot.”

High-speed tabulators used by the city can count 60 ballots per minute, but that still may not be fast enough to process the thousands of absentee ballots during the 13-hours that polls are open on Election Day. Kotowski said she’s also facing a shortage of election workers because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you’re a person who has respiratory issues or is a high-risk individual, why would you put yourself out there? Even at the Absentee Voter Counting Board,” she said. I’ve been very lucky and had a lot of poll workers over the years. I can’t blame them for not working.”

As of July 15, Kotowski was still trying to fill 16 vacancies at the precincts, and she said she knows she’s not the only clerk in Michigan dealing with the problem.

Typically, the city pays for election workers, ballots and other supplies in an election. This year, the list of expenses has expanded to also include N-95 masks for poll workers, face shields, hand sanitizer, gloves and enough ink pens for every voter to use their own throughout the entire voting process.

She has also purchased Saran Wrap to put on the screen of the computerized voter assistance terminal so that the plastic can be changed in between voters and also Q-tips for voters to use if they are still uncomfortable touching the machine.

Kotowski estimates she’s spent at least an additional $10,000 to adapt to running a primary election in a pandemic. Add in the cost of another high-speed tabulator — which won’t be delivered to the city in time for the primary election but should make it by November — and that’s another $37,500 spent to help process the higher number of absentee ballots.

Voters heading to physical polling locations Aug. 4 will be encouraged to social distance and, while Kotowski encourages voters to wear a mask, she said she “can’t not allow a voter to vote.”

“And I can’t force them to wear a mask right now, I don’t think. As an election official, I can’t prohibit a voter from casting a vote,” she said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order mandating the use of masks in indoor spaces includes an exemption for residents at a polling place for the purpose of voting.

Kotowski said she’s not sure if the number of voters at polling locations will top the number of absentee voters this year, but, “realistically, I’m hedging a 29% turnout without the polls opening right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen at the precincts.”

Even if more people vote absentee, Kotowski said she still has to open and staff every precinct. She encourages high-risk individuals to vote absentee, however.

St. Clair Shores absentee voters can return their ballot via U.S. Postal Service, although Kotowski encourages them to allow at least seven days for delivery. Ballots must be received by the clerk by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Otherwise, voters can drop their ballot anytime before 8 p.m. Election Day in the white city mailbox at the front entrance of City Hall, in the white election drop box at the rear entrance of City Hall, or between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Clerk’s counter in City Hall.

“I hope voters will practice social distancing. We encourage them to bring their own black pens, but I bought plenty,” Kotowski said.

Moving forward to the November election, Kotowski said she will need more poll workers. An application is available on the City Clerk’s page at scsmi.net.

The Macomb County Election Department and Miller are also accumulating personal protective equipment for local communities to use in the Aug. 4 election. Hand sanitizer, surface disinfectant, masks, gloves and face shields were delivered to the county in July to be placed into bundles for polling locations throughout the county.

The items were paid for by the Michigan Secretary of State’s Bureau of Elections with money from the federal CARES Act.

“This is a cooperative effort to protect the health of voters and election workers alike,” Miller said in a press release. “These efforts to keep people safe, along with the new right for all Michigan voters to vote at home via absentee ballot, will help make sure that everyone has a chance to participate in the pivotal elections on Aug. 4 and Nov. 3, 2020.”

Miller said his office has been told by the Michigan Secretary of State that similar materials will be made available for the November election.

Like every primary election, Kotowski said voters need to remember to pick which party they are voting for before marking their ballot.

“If you vote in both partisan columns, the tabulator is going to tell you (that) you made an error,” she said.

Voters who do that with an absentee ballot can fill out a form on the clerk’s website requesting their ballot be spoiled and requesting a new ballot.

“The deadline for them to replace their absentee (ballot) is Monday (Aug.) 3rd,” she said. “No one can get a ballot replaced on Election Day.”

Residents can get registered to vote on Election Day because of new regulations enacted with Proposal 18-3. Those wishing to do so will need proof of residency and picture identification.

Staff Writer Nick Mordowanec contributed to this report.