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After August Primary, Election Officials Have New Worries For Nov. Presidential Election

A "Vote Here" sign

Michigan saw its first cases of the coronavirus in March right around the time of the state’s presidential primary.

After that, election officials had five months to prepare for the state’s next major election which was the primary held earlier this month.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says the election went well, but the system was pushed to its limit due to a record number of absentee ballots cast. That leaves questions about how local election officials will handle the November presidential election.

Tina Barton is the clerk for the city of Rochester Hills in Oakland County. She describes being an election official right now like someone pushing her into a batting cage without a bat and turning on all the pitching machines on at once.

“You're constantly dodging things that are coming at you, trying to respond quick enough to what's being thrown your way,” she said.

Barton says she tripled the size of her absentee counting board in anticipation of the primary. They received 17,000 ballots, and it took them working 16 hours on Election Day, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to process and count all of them. Now, she’s concerned about how she’ll be able to handle everything in November.

“I'm easily seeing us pushed out to 30,000, and if it took us that long to do almost 17,000 ballots, how much longer is it going to take for us to add, you know, an additional 13,000 to that?”

The pandemic, the major jump in absentee ballots and, especially, delays with the United States Postal Service were also challenges to Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

“One voter, in particular, from the city of Lansing didn't receive the first ballot, didn't receive the second ballot [and] finally received the third ballot that was mailed out on July 13,” Byrum said.

The worst thing a clerk can receive in the mail after an election is a ballot.

More than 6,000 ballots arrived in clerk’s offices statewide after the state’s 8 p.m. Election Day deadline. Those ballots were thrown out. Late ballots made up nearly 60% of all rejected absentee ballots in the primary.

“The worst thing a clerk can receive in the mail after an election is a ballot,” said Byrum.

That’s something Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is hoping to change. After the primary she called for legislation to be passed to allow ballots that arrive within 48 hours of the election to be counted, as long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day.

Byrum supports the change, saying it’s especially important for overseas and military voters.

“We need to make sure that if people get their ballots in, that their vote is counted, even if there's something totally out of their hands [that] makes it so the ballot doesn't get there timely.”

While Barton agrees counting ballots by their postmark date is something that might need to change, she still has reservations about it.

“We do have a deadline, and that deadline says that it is supposed to be in our possession as of 8 p.m. on election night. I guess my thoughts are, how long do we let that go? How many days past election day are we going to continue to do that? That has impacts too on canvassing and on certification.”

Another change Benson is asking legislators to make is to allow election workers to process ballots before Election, that means opening envelopes and getting them ready for tabulation. Barton says that’s something she can get behind.

Every step that we can do prior to Election Day is a time saver when you look at that one step is going to have to be done 30,000 times.

“Every step that we can do prior to Election Day is a time saver when you look at that one step is going to have to be done 30,000 times,” she said.

Byrum worries that some voters may start to distrust the election process due to all these challenges, but she has a solution that will help both clerks like her and voters.

“Work a poll,” Byrum said. “We need more hands on deck, more eyes watching the process, and if there are any concerns about the security of our elections, let's talk them through.”

Voters can begin applying to vote absentee for the November Presidential Election on August 20. That’s 75 days before Election Day.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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