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Politics & Government

What Happens To Absentee Ballots Once They Get Dropped Off Or Mailed In

City of Lansing Ballot Drop-Box
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Election officials recommend dropping off ballots in secure dropboxes because of delays in the mail.

With two weeks until the election, more than one and a half million Michiganders have returned their absentee ballots. That’s out of the 2.8 million people in total who have requested ballots.

You may be wondering what happens once you drop your ballot off or put it in the mail.

Typically, absentee ballots aren't opened or processed until Election Day, but a law signed this year by Governor Gretchen Whitmer allows local clerks of larger municipalities to take ballots out of the envelope, not the secrecy sleeve, the day before the Election.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum to explain more.

Interview Highlights

On What Happens To Ballots Once They’re Dropped Off Or Mailed In

Once the local clerk receives the absentee ballot, they're going to compare the signature on the back of that envelope to the signature that's on file on the qualified voter file. That signature is typically the signature found on a driver's license or Michigan ID, then they will file it and keep it safe until Election Day.

On Why Results Might Take Longer This Year

It takes longer to process absentee ballots because of all of the checks that we have in the procedures to make sure that the vote is still confidential for that voter and that the security of our elections are maintained. So, it does take longer to process those absentee ballots. Unofficial results will not likely be available by 9:30 on election night. It's not likely. That does not mean that something has gone wrong. That does not mean that there is a delay. What it means is, is that the precinct inspectors, the election workers are making sure that every ballot is properly counted. That's what it means.

On How To Check If A Ballot Has Been Received

If any of your listeners have concerns about whether or not their ballot has been received, if their signature was accepted or anything like that, they should visit www.michigan.gov/vote. They can check to see if their ballot has been received by their local clerk. If their signature was not accepted on the back of that envelope, it will indicate on that website and also the local clerk should be contacting them.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

With two weeks until the election, more than one million Michiganders have returned their absentee ballots. That’s out of the 2.8 million people in total who have requested ballots.

But you may be wondering what happens once you drop your ballot off or put it in the mail. Here to explain is Ingham County Clerk, Barb Byrum. Thanks for being here.

Barb Byrum: Thank you so much for having me.

Saliby: So, once a ballot is dropped off or mailed in, what happens to it and how is it kept secure?

Byrum: Once the local clerk receives the absentee ballot, they're going to compare the signature on the back of that envelope to the signature that's on file on the qualified voter file. That signature is typically the signature found on a driver's license or Michigan ID, then they will file it and keep it safe until Election Day. Typically, clerks will process, they'll open the envelopes on Election Day, so those envelopes will not be open, typically until Election Day.

And when that ballot envelope is opened, the ballot and the secrecy sleeve are removed. The ballot number is going to be compared to the ballot number that was issued to that voter. Then that stub which has the ballot number will be removed. Then it will move down the line and down the process; the ballot will be removed from the envelope, it'll be flattened, and then, eventually, it'll find its way to the tabulator and fed through the tabulator

Saliby: And Ingham County is operating a consolidated absentee ballot counting board on Election Day. What does that mean?

Byrum: So, under legislation that passed just this year, which was signed by the governor just this year, it allows for a consolidated county absentee counting board with mutual agreement from the local clerk and the county clerk. And so, Ingham County will be following Oakland County. Oakland County did this in August and is planning to do it again in November.

Ingham County is going to be conducting a countywide consolidated absentee counting board. The only municipality that was interested in this partnership was Meridian Township. So, I will have about 50 election workers, Democrats and Republicans, precinct inspectors that will be processing all of those absentee ballots for Meridian Township.

Saliby: And for all of the other local municipalities, their local clerks will be handling the processing of absentee ballots?

Byrum: Correct.

Saliby: Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has said full results might not come in for races until the Friday after the election. Does that seem like an accurate prediction based on what you're seeing?

Byrum: So, what I'm seeing is since the passage of Proposal Three in 2018, people are embracing the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot. You never know what your schedule will look like, or if it's going to snow on Election Day. So, people have been voting more and more via absentee ballot or "by mail" is how some people refer to it.

So, certainly we're seeing a significant increase, over the past few elections and then certainly this November general election, which is a presidential general election, so it will take a while for all of those ballots to be processed.

It takes longer to process absentee ballots because of all the checks that we have in the procedures to make sure that the vote is still confidential for that voter and that the security of our elections are maintained. So, it does take longer to process those absentee ballots.

Unofficial results will not likely be available by 9:30 on election night. It's not likely. That does not mean that something has gone wrong. That does not mean that there is a delay. What it means is, is that the precinct inspectors, the election workers are making sure that every ballot is properly counted. That's what it means.

Saliby: A Court of Appeals has blocked an earlier judicial ruling that would have allowed ballots postmarked by November 2nd, that arrive up to 14 days after the election on November 3 to be counted still. Do you have any reaction to this new ruling and how does it affect plans to process ballots?

Byrum: So, judicial election rulings holding so close to the election always provide for changes and opportunities to re-train and to update guidance and update policies and procedures and then revert back. And it's unfortunate that some voters may be disenfranchised as a result of no fault of their own, quite frankly. It would be as a result of the mail taking too long to process, but it is imperative that your listeners know that if they have not requested an absentee ballot, they may still do that. 

They can go to their, preferably, go to their local clerk's office, request their ballot, vote their ballot and then just hand it right back. And then keep in mind the weekend before the election, local clerks are required to be open for eight hours. So, usually that's Saturday [and] sometimes that's Saturday and Sunday. So ,there are opportunities to visit the clerk's office and speak to a real person at the clerk's office the weekend before.

And if any of your listeners have concerns about whether or not their ballot has been received, if their signature was accepted or anything like that, they should visit www.michigan.gov/vote. They can check to see if their ballot has been received by their local clerk. If their signature was not accepted on the back of that envelope, it will indicate on that website and also the local clerk should be contacting that voter.

Saliby: Barb Byrum is the clerk for Ingham County. Thanks for joining me.

Byrum: Thank you so much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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