Absentee voting spike puts paper at the cutting edge of Michigan elections

Polls are open — no pants required

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It’s called “No Reason Absentee Voting” – but if there was ever a reason to do it, it’s COVID-19.

Voters are taking full advantage of the absentee voting reform approved by referendum in Michigan two years ago. Clerk after clerk in Greater Lansing is reporting a huge uptick in processing absentee ballots for the Aug. 4 primary election.

Thus, with voters already voting, City Pulse offers you its look at selected races in this week’s issue, nearly a month before election day. Look for more coverage in the remaining weeks.

To request an absentee ballot online go to: michigan.gov/vote.

Not long ago, an absentee ballot was a curiosity to be scrutinized and envied, a doctor’s note letting Grandma vote in her favorite chair while the rest of us dutifully waited in line.

No more. The potent combination of COVID-19 fears and no-reason absentee voting, approved by Michigan voters in 2018, is revolutionizing voting patterns across the state, including greater Lansing, in 2020 and probably for good.

City and county clerks who work on the front lines of democracy have lobbied to little avail for more time and better tools to process the growing mountain of 2020 ballots. Their pleas have gotten no traction with the Republican-controlled state Legislature, but the clerks are determined to do their best with the tools they have, hoping the public will roll with the delays and uncertainties ahead.

“Michigan is going to be in a spot where a lot of states are already, where you might have projections and partial results on Tuesday,” Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said. “But I think the time of having full results on election night is a thing of the past.”

2020 is an interesting year to be a clerk.

“Oh, my God, you have no idea,” Delta Township Clerk Mary Clark said. “The numbers are a little overwhelming some days, but this is a very exciting time. I’m optimistic because people are engaged. Complacency is not good for us as a country.”

‘We’re inundated’

By Thursday (July 2), Swope’s office had received more absentee ballot applications for this August’s primary election than the total number of ballots counted, both absentee and at the polls, in the 2018 August primary.

Statewide, clerks report receiving more than 1.3 million absentee ballot applications by July 4 — a million more than they received a month before the August 2016 primary. And that’s for an election Swope said would normally be “low turnout.”

“In 2018, we had a gubernatorial primary in both parties, a hotly contested congressional Democratic primary — a lot of contested offices,” Swope said. “This time, there are very few contested offices.”

Top-of-the-ticket buzz is not driving the turnout, because the presidential primary was already held in March.

Nevertheless, the absentee ballot applications keep pouring in. Meridian Township Clerk Brett Dreyfus expects to haul in about 9,000 absentee ballots this August — about 75-80% of the vote.
Dreyfus, a vocal and enthusiastic proponent of voting by mail, is rolling in all this paper, like Scrooge McDuck in his counting house.

“We’re inundated with ballots, and I love it,” Dreyfus said. “It shows that people are concerned about the political landscape we all live in, and they want their voices heard.”

Dreyfus said many people are discovering the convenience of absentee voting this year, and a lot of them will never go back.

“Instead of 19 polling locations on one day, why not have 20,000 polling locations for 40 days? Every household becomes a polling location,” Dreyfus said.

“Our old way of voting was archaic,” Swope agreed. “You had to go to a specific place on a specific day during specific hours, and that’s not the way we live.”

In Delta Township, the largest municipality in Eaton County, Clerk Mary Clark’s office was flooded by nearly 9,000 absentee ballot requests by the end of June. By comparison, fewer than 4,000 ballots were returned in the entire August 2016 primary in Delta Township.

“No-reason absentee voting is engaging voters that have not been active voters before,” Clark said. “I had a gentleman bring in an application. He’s not voted in over 10 years.”

But for city and county clerks, August is just a warm-up for the big presidential election in November. Clark expects to receive 12,000 to 14,000 absentee ballots in the fall general election — in a municipality with 26,345 voters.

There are signs that the changes rolling across the electoral landscape will not be reversed in years to come, by a COVID vaccine or anything else.

Many voters are requesting to be placed on the permanent absentee voter list and may never go back to a polling place for the rest of their lives.

“My total voter count on the permanent absentee voter list is 9,847,” Clark said. “I was just under 6,000 for the March primary.”

She paused for about two seconds as she tracked the numbers on her screen.

“Now it’s 9,848.”

Let ‘er rip

In March, Mary Clark’s office bought a fancy $2,000 letter opener to help with the tedious job of opening absentee ballot envelopes. On Election Day, Clark’s absent voter counting board will expand to 40 people, who’ll sequester with face masks and takeout food and buckle down to work.

That same day, in Meridian Township, Dreyfus’ absentee voter counting board of 14 will break up into teams: envelope openers, ballot-puller-outers, flatteners, tabulator feeders and error spotter/handlers.

This year, social distancing will complicate the job.

In Lansing, Swope has requested more space for his absentee ballot counting team of about 60 people, so he can spread them out, “but it’s hard to keep a safe distance between those folks,” he said.

“They are sequestered, so we feed them, and you can’t wear masks when you’re eating,” he said. “It’s a complicated undertaking.”

Clark is more worried about Swope than she is about her own office in Delta Township.

“Chris has 45 precincts, three times my size, but he’s given the same amount of time as I am to process my ballots,” Clark said.
By state law, absentee ballots can’t be processed or counted until the morning of Election Day, no matter how many of them pile up in the weeks before.

“There’s a song, right? ‘You Don’t Always Get What You Want,’” Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said. “I personally wanted to start tabulating days before. Some states do it.”

Processing absentee ballots before Election Day is permitted in 28 states, according to Michigan State Rep. Vanessa Guerra; 16 of those states allow ballots to be counted before Election Day.

In February, Guerra introduced a bill that would allow local clerks in Michigan to count absentee votes seven days before an election, but the bill went nowhere.

Byrum said that with all of the safeguards available, early counting shouldn’t scare people. Tabulators can be programmed not to produce results until the polls close.

“We can sequester workers, just like we sequester jurors. This is not new stuff,” Byrum said. “It doesn’t appear as though the Republican Legislature is willing to go anywhere near that.”

Swope visited Denver after the 2018 election to see how ballots are counted there.

“They start counting a couple weeks ahead,” Swope said. “They seal everything up and don’t see results. They’re broken into teams, so any one election inspector only sees a small proportion.”

With Guerra’s bill dead in the water, Clark and Swope both testified before the state Legislature in favor of letting their workers start opening, but not counting, absentee ballots on the Monday before the election.

“Just to be able to open them and remove them from the return envelope, leaving them in the secrecy sleeve, would make the process faster,” Clark said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in February that opening ballots a day before the election is “the nose of the camel underneath the tent toward early voting, early counting, which I’m very opposed to,” according to the Detroit Free Press.

Shirkey said in several interviews that early processing would set a “dangerous precedent” and he’d rather count on local clerks to use their ingenuity to deal with the situation.

Swope seems resigned to do just that.

“As we get to the timing crunch and the volume of things we’re going to have to deal with on Election Day, the Legislature is not trying to make it easy,” Swope said.

Swope prefers understatement, but Clark is not shy about reading between the lines of Republican resistance to voting by mail.

“They’re saying, ‘Let’s see how creative clerks can be,’” Clark said. “I translate that as, ‘Let’s see if we can make it a failure.’”

Many local and state offices in Michigan, from clerks up to the governor, are filled at present with “strong Democratic women,” Clark said, and delays and debacles at the polls would give Republican lawmakers “evidence that they should be gone in 2022.”

“I’m speaking only for myself, but I think there’s a long line behind me that feels the same way,” Clark said.

Dreyfus said that as of Monday, early processing of absentee ballots was still “in limbo.”

“Nothing has moved,” Byrum confirmed.

Clark is girding for whatever comes.

“The House and Senate elections committees are the powers that be,” she said. “If they’re comfortable with it, I am. We will do quality work. Quality and ethics come first. The results will be there when they’re there.”

The ultimate end run

Besides suiting up for the count of their lives, local clerks are also fighting messaging from high places, including President Donald Trump, that absentee ballots are more vulnerable to fraud than votes cast at the polls.

Byrum asserted that voting by mail is “absolutely safe.” “I will never discuss all of the safely precautions we take, because that would be delivering an opportunity to attack on a silver platter, but there are a number of procedures that are done,” Byrum said.

Voter signatures on absentee ballot requests are matched with the voter’s signature on the outside envelope of the actual ballot. Each voter is assigned a ballot stub number to control inventory.
“There are so many checks and procedures that I am confident in the integrity of our elections,” Byrum said.

Dreyfus said the township counting board and precinct chairs and co-chairs “are always balanced with D’s and R’s.”

“We’re already in a secure facility and we have people who are sworn to uphold the law,” he said.

Another level of safeguards kicks in as soon as the polls close.
“The next day, two Democrats and two Republicans sit in a room for days on end, going through the election to make sure that for very ballot voted, there was a voter that voted it,” Byrum said. “They are the ones that certify the election. And even after that, random election audits are done.”

In the year of COVID-19 and widespread protests against systemic inequality, electoral reforms are sprouting in Michigan that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Last week, Sterling Heights, the state’s fourth largest city, set aside $25,000 to pay return postage for its residents’ absentee ballots in November. The city will also provide secure boxes at fire stations where people can drop off the ballots without mailing them.

Lansing, to date, has two secure drop boxs, one at City Hal and the other at the clerk's office inside the old Washington Armory, 2500 S. Washington Ave. Swope said the city is considering adding four more secure drop boxes, at the city’s four community centers, by November.

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor, a Republican, brushed off President Trump’s warnings that absentee balloting would lead to massive voter fraud.

“My response would be stop listening to Donald Trump,” Taylor told The Detroit News. “Have an independent thought and do what’s best for the voters and the residents.”

Swope said there’s no movement afoot to bring postage-paid voting in Lansing, but Dreyfus is pushing for it in Meridian Township, with ballots mailed automatically for all future elections as long as the voter is at the same address.

The cost of postage, Dreyfus said, would be offset by savings in equipment and pay for poll workers, but that’s not the most important benefit.

“It solves all issues of economic barriers, transportation barriers — and there’s even equipment for remote marking devices for disabled people,” Dreyfus said. “Once your voter registration form is filled out and your residence is verified, you never need to fill out a form again.”

To Dreyfus, the cost-benefit calculus is screamingly obvious. The April 2020 election in Wisconsin, when voters waited for hours in the middle of a pandemic to get into only five polling places in Milwaukee (and a U.S. Supreme Court decision muddied the count of absentee ballots) is one of many ominous signs of chaos and disarray waiting in the wings in November.

Dreyfus sees voting by mail as the ultimate end run around multiple barriers to voting and myriad forms of voter suppression — benefits that, to his mind, vastly outweigh speculative fears of scattered fraud. Dreyfus started a website, Michigan-vote-by-mail.com, to inform voters and advocate for voting by mail.

“Voter suppression is real, and voter fraud is not real, and voter suppression is eliminated with vote by mail,” Dreyfus said.

Get him warmed up on the subject, and he rises to a peroration worthy of William Jennings Bryan.

“The process is flawed through and through,” Dreyfus said.

“The pandemic is showing that we need to evolve past the concept of elections as we see it now and move totally toward the universal vote by mail.”

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