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Michigan Ballot Delays Could Impact Election Night Results


The swing state of Michigan will play a big role in both the Democratic primary and general election this year. But local officials are sounding the alarm that the state may not be able to report complete results on election nights, especially in November. As Abigail Censky of member station WKAR in East Lansing reports, the worries are driven by new election laws and possible record turnout.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: In the basement of an old government building, election workers are training to count absentee ballots.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What we're going to do is pair you guys up into groups two. And basically, you're going to open and close the tabulator, open and close a vat, seal up a ballot bag if you want, and seal a transfer case if you want.

CENSKY: Scenes like this are taking place all over the state. Michigan voters approved no-reason absentee voting in 2018. Since then, there's been an over 70% increase in absentee ballot requests ahead of the presidential primary. That increase has local clerks worried. Right now, they're not allowed to count absentee ballots until Election Day. That means hours of opening envelopes, taking ballots out of secrecy sleeves and flattening them before running them through a counting machine.

Barb Byrum is the Ingham County clerk. She says that with all eyes on Michigan, there will almost certainly be delays if the law doesn't change.

BARB BYRUM: What we will likely see is clerks not being able to report unofficial results at the close of polls or even hours after the polls close or perhaps a day after the polls close. And what that does is it impacts voter confidence.

CENSKY: Michigan isn't the only state where officials are telling the media and the public not to expect speedy results. New equipment and voting laws in other states like Arizona, California and Pennsylvania mean results there could also come the next day or later. In Michigan, Byrum says there is an easy fix to all of this. At least 28 other states allow some kind of processing or preparing of absentee ballots before Election Day.

BYRUM: We need to look at increasing absentee counting boards. We need perhaps to look at additional tabulators. But we really need to look at early processing of the ballots.

CENSKY: There are bills in the state legislature to change the law, but it's uncertain if and when they'll pass. One clerk who's feeling the pressure is Chris Swope in Lansing. He expects there could be 25,000 absentee ballots in his city this November.

CHRIS SWOPE: I've talked to clerks that say they want to retire before November because they know they're being put in an impossible situation.

CENSKY: This isn't the only potential voting issue this year. Michigan also passed same-day registration in 2018, meaning there could be a lot more people trying to vote on Election Day, especially in college towns and big cities. Mark Grebner, a longtime Michigan political consultant, is more concerned about the impact of those changes than the new absentee ballot rules.

MARK GREBNER: It's going to be the largest turnout we've ever had in an election in Michigan. And we're going to be drawing in lots of people who have never voted, and we're doing it under new rules. And so it's very likely that parts of the system will simply fail.

CENSKY: President Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. Grebner says if the results are close, it could be two days after the election before a winner is declared. He says people should start getting used to that idea now.

For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky in East Lansing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TINARIWEN'S "TIWAYYEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Abigail Censky reported on Politics & Government at WKAR from 2018 to 2021. Now, she reports for The Colorado Springs Gazette and edits for The Catalyst Newspaper.
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