Imagine what it would be like to be in a race against others, but not be allowed to start running until days or weeks after them. You would be behind them. That is the position Michigan found itself in in the 2020 election when it comes to processing and counting absentee ballots.
“We understand the eyes of the nation are on Michigan right now and our voters and our ballots,” said Jocelyn Benson, (D) Michigan Secretary of State.
Benson says Michigan saw a record, more than 3 million absentee ballots cast, and verifying the signatures on them takes time.
But other states also dealing with COVID-19 concerns saw record increases in absentee ballots. So why is Michigan taking so much longer?
“In other states, they can start processing absentee ballots long before the election,” said Jonathan Hanson, a Political Scientist at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy.
Some states allow absentee ballots to be processed and/or counted as they are received, sometimes weeks before clerks in Michigan are allowed to start the job. Michigan typically is not allowed to start processing them or counting them until Election Day.
The legislature passed an act that this year only allowed clerks to process absentee ballots for ten hours on the day before Election Day.
Policy experts and clerks warn that the increase in absentee ballots is not only due to the pandemic.
“The coronavirus magnified the problem tremendously, but it would be mistaken to think we are never going to experience this again,” said Hanson.
“We would like to be one of the earlier reporters or at least right in there with the pack,” said Debbie Binder, West Bloomfield Township Clerk.
Binder says that since Proposal Three passed in 2018, allowing anyone in Michigan to vote absentee, the number of people requesting automatic absentee ballot applications in the township has more than tripled from about 8,000 to about 25,000.
“I think going forward the legislature needs to look at what the needs of their local clerk are,” said Binder.
She says it takes time to process every ballot, which includes opening the exterior envelope and comparing the signature on the interior privacy envelope to the signatures on record. That is what they were allowed to do on Monday.
It also takes time to open the privacy envelope and feed the ballots into the tabulator so they are counted.
It also takes significant time to take absentee ballots submitted by our service members. A bipartisan team of multiple election workers takes electronically submitted military ballots and transcribes the votes onto paper ballots, so they can be tabulated.
Her team finished counting around two a.m., after brutally long days. She says it would be ideal to have more time so she can have workers who are not exhausted as they do the important job.
State Senator Ruth Johnson introduced the legislation that provided an extra ten hours this year. The original bill she introduced did not restrict it to this year.
The Republican and former Secretary of State says she will be looking into what should be done in the future. She said it is possible more time should be allowed, if not for everyone, for communities of a certain size.
“We put a sunset on it and I was happy to see that amendment. You should always check and see if something like this is working well and what changes you might make,” said Johnson.