Michigan's Push For Absentee Voting During Pandemic Comes At A High Cost

May 5, 2020

Tuesday Michigan is holding the first election since announcing its first two cases of COVID-19 the night of the state’s presidential primary. The May elections will serve as a soft-opening for how Michiganders will cast their votes in August and November.

How To Vote In A Pandemic

Roughly 10 percent of the state’s electorate has an election Tuesday. Local elections are only happening in counties where crucial funding is on the line and can’t be pushed back to August. In-person voting is limited to one polling place per jurisdiction for voters with disabilities, or voters who make the decision to vote or register on election day.

Gerrid Uzarski, the director of elections for Kent County, says people who plan to cast their vote in-person should bring masks.

“We have a limited supply. We definitely need some help with that. So, if they could bring their own kind of face cover, we need help from them.”

After participating in Wisconsin’s April Presidential Primary, 52 voters tested positive for COVID-19. Pictures and videos of election lines wrapping blocks, and voters without masks circulated as 15 other states pushed back their primaries to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Local clerks say Michigan is more prepared after a big push for vote by mail and sending election workers personal protective equipment. Local clerks fended for their own PPE, but also received a limited supply from the state including hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and some shields. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said those things didn’t happen in Wisconsin.

“As you saw from the photos people were interacting very closely, no masks, no gloves, no hygiene equipment. People were in line without being six feet apart. All of those things were not followed. And so, taking a lesson from that we’re trying to show that if elections are held by mail, with limited in person voting they actually can be conducted safely even in the midst of a pandemic.”

Nancy Wang is the Executive Director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that shepherded redistricting reforms through the 2018 midterms. She says it’s possible to scale safe voting in a pandemic.

“There is a path for us to do that. It takes political will, it takes funding, it takes statutory changes and it takes our state government supporting our local clerks, so that they can make the accommodations they need to keep voters safe,” said Wang.

Her group endorses the pivot to vote by mail, but would also like to expand in person voting—opening up polling locations for extended hours on evenings and weekends so voters can register and vote absentee while remaining socially distant.

2 to 3 Million Votes Could Be Cast By Mail

For the May elections alone, the state sent out absentee voter applications to 740,000 registered voters with an envelope and postage to send the application back. Turnout is expected to be double the ordinary 12 percent. At a Monday press briefing, Benson noted turnout was already at 20 percent.

But, it’s hard to plan for the August primary and general election in November without knowing if voters will be able to go to polling places. With a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases in the fall, states across the country, including Michigan, are preparing for elections with a majority of votes cast by mail.

A recent study by the Pew research center found 66 percent of surveyed Americans in hard-hit states said they would be uncomfortable going to a polling place during the coronavirus pandemic. A separate survey found 70 percent of Americans favor a vote by mail option.

Jocelyn Benson said what we’ll likely see is a huge spike of absentee voting.

“I usually don’t like to prognosticate or predict, but we’ve got 7.7 million voters registered in Michigan right now. We can anticipate that a significant number, maybe 5 million will be voting this fall. And of that, 2-3 million of those ballots being voted from home, if not more. So, we’re anticipating for more ballots being sent in and needing to be counted centrally than ever before in our state’s history.”

Currently, the state’s laws don’t allow clerks to begin processing absentee ballots until election day despite the 2018 voter directed change to allow no-excuse absentee voting.

To handle that number of absentee ballots the state will need more software, more people to process ballots (while remaining socially distant), and high-speed machines to count the ballots. All of those changes come with a cost.

A Multimillion Dollar Price Tag

Liz Howard is counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. In a late April report the Brennan Center estimated those changes could come with a price tag of up to $104 million in Michigan.

So far Congress has given the state $11.2 million, via the CARES Act, just a quarter of the money it will need according to Secretary of State Benson. Howard agrees, that won’t cut it.

“The amount of money that congress allocated for the entire country, 400 million, isn’t even enough to fund elections in the five states that we profiled,” said Howard.

The report postulates the cost for printing, packing, and mailing absentee ballots alone could be $7-11.3 million for the remainder of the year’s elections. “Statewide, the staffing, facilities, equipment, and software that will likely be needed to process and tabulate returned absentee ballots amounts to approximately $36.5 million, including one-time equipment purchase costs.”

Nancy Wang, with Voters Not Politicians, says state lawmakers and congress will need to act to secure the money for big changes.

“The consequences here can’t be more stark, right? They’re life and death. And, if there are any issues that can bring both parties together this should be it,” said Wang.

For now, election officials across the state will continue to hope for the best and plan for the worst. But whether they’ll have enough money to make the recommended changes for safely voting in a pandemic remains to be seen, and largely depends on federal funding.