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Head start to prepare absentee ballots for counting before election is not the time-saver clerks had hoped for

Why smaller municipalities won’t take advantage of the extra two days the legislature provided.

A gloved hand passes a stack of ballot envelopes to a man

Election workers help organize absentee ballots at the Central Counting Board in the TCF Center on Nov. 4, 2020, in Detroit.

Elaine Cromie / Getty Images

As Michigan clerks prepare to reckon with nearly 1 million absentee ballots they’ve received so far, they say one accommodation meant to give them a head start isn’t the solution it was intended to be, especially for smaller municipalities.

Rather, it’s mostly big cities, including Grand Rapids and Detroit, that will take advantage of a recent legal change allowing clerks to pre-process absentee ballots two days before Election Day.

Pre-processing of the absentee ballots in Michigan involves opening the mail-in envelope and comparing the stub of the envelope with the numbers on the ballot. A secrecy sleeve concealing the ballot stays intact until election workers can scan the ballot through a tabulator on Nov. 8.

Adam Wit, president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, says many clerks feel “it’s not worth it” to mobilize a staff for a day or two of pre-processing because they won’t have the ability to actually scan the absentee ballots through tabulators, due to how the change was written.

“It doesn’t save them a lot of time,” said Wit. “Everyone wanted the tabulator, and we didn’t get that.” 

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum says the pre-processing bill approved by the Republican-dominated Michigan Legislature falls short of meeting clerks’ needs. 

“All this is is opening an envelope and comparing the number on the stub of the envelope and the number on the ballot,” said Byrum. 

Byrum added that without being able to put the ballots through a tabulator, as more than one-third of other states allow, Michigan’s version of pre-processing is not really a time-saver.

“This is settling for crumbs,” Byrum said.

Michigan lawmakers approved a bipartisan measure of election reforms last month, allowing the two days of pre-processing. Previously under the law, clerks couldn’t do anything with the ballots until Election Day. Only clerks in areas with a population of 10,000 or more qualify for the time. The state has more than 1,500 clerks in cities, townships, and villages in its 83 counties.

Byrum said only two of the 21 clerks in her county are choosing to use the pre-processing days. Ingham County has 213,000 registered voters. As of Oct. 25, nearly 60,000 of them had requested absentee ballots, Byrum said.

The only other time clerks have been permitted to pre-process ballots was in 2020 —  a temporary concession during a blitz of absentee voting because of COVID-19. Most clerks interviewed by Votebeat Michigan said they liked the option because it eased the pressure on Election Day.

Now, pandemic worries are waning but voters are still opting to cast absentee ballots out of convenience. As of Oct. 25, about a quarter of the state’s 8.1 million active voters had requested absentee ballots, said Michigan Secretary of State spokesman Jake Rollow during a weekly press briefing by the department. Rollow said 771,967 had been returned as of last week, and there’s a good chance half of Michigan voters will have voted absentee by Election Day.

Delta Township Clerk Mary Clark was among the clerks pushing the Legislature for an opportunity to pre-process ballots. As then-president of the state Association of Municipal Clerks, she began lobbying in February for changes to election procedures to enable clerks to run smoother elections. But the bill that passed this fall, after preparations for elections had already begun, gave clerks only a portion of the changes they wanted. 

“Clerks are very frustrated,” said Clark, who noted she, too, would not use the new pre-processing time in her Eaton County township, which has 27,590 registered voters.

State Rep. Ann Bollin, a Republican who chairs the state House Elections and Ethics Committee, praised the new legislation. The new law also requires additional security for ballot drop boxes, such as cameras at drop box sites, which have been a focal point for reports of voter intimidation in other parts of the country.

“The agreement we have reached together is a win for election integrity,” Bollin said about the legislation in September. “This process will be transparent and open to poll challengers.”

Bollin did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.

Clerks from Michigan’s biggest cities are more excited about the extra time: The larger the load of absentee ballots, the more helpful those two days are.

Troy City Clerk Aileen Dickson says the pre-processing in any form will help ease the workload for her election workers. Troy has 65,000 registered voters, and Dickson is expecting 20,000 of them to vote absentee. 

Dickson said she’ll be able to head off a potential logjam of work on the day of the election. She’s hiring about 70 extra election workers for the pre-processing. 

“It’ll help get some of the work out of the way,” said Dickson. “When we took advantage of it in 2020, it worked out well.”

Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp also plans to pre-process ballots for one of the two allowed days.

“I’m looking for the fastest way to get ballots to tabulators,” said Hondorp, who notes that it costs the city $5,000 more in labor costs to conduct pre-processing. Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city, has 147,000 registered voters. Hondorp believes 30,000 of them will vote absentee.

In Detroit, city clerk Janice Winfrey is also choosing to pre-process absentee ballots as much as possible. She said it will solve a lot of headaches for her staff on Election Day.

As of Oct. 17, Winfrey’s Detroit Elections Department had received 70,000 absentee ballots. She told reporters at a news conference that she expects to get 100,000 absentee ballots  by Election Day.

“We’re definitely going to use pre-processing,” said Winfrey. “It works for us. We can get through election night without wearing out election workers.”

Daniel Baxter, director of elections for the City of Detroit, added that while the election workers cannot use tabulators during the pre-processing of the absentee ballots, using the time is still what’s best for the city.

Baxter admits it’s the “best of both worlds” to be able to put the ballots through for a tabulator but will settle for the benefit of getting some work in before crunch time.

This article is made possible through a partnership with Bridge Michigan, Michigan’s largest nonpartisan, nonprofit news publication. 

Oralandar Brand-Williams is a senior reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Bridge Michigan. Contact Oralandar at obrand-williams@votebeat.org.

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