At 9:30 a.m. in the bowels of an old building, four elderly women are being trained to count absentee ballots at the City of Lansing’s elections unit.
Election Supervisor Robin Stites is firing up the tabulators for the trainees to practice on. Over the whir of the vote counting machines Stites says she’s worried, “When the results aren’t in and it’s held up by Michigan and we’re Iowa in the news, I just want to be like, ‘We tried! We tried!’”
A Surge In Absentee Ballots
A month ahead of Michigan’s March presidential primary there’s been a 70 percent increase in absentee ballot requests after voters in the state passed no-reason absentee voting in 2018.
That surge in absentee ballot requests has local clerks and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson sounding the alarm. They’re worried because under current law, election officials can’t begin processing absentee ballots until 7 a.m. election day.
That means hours of opening envelopes, taking ballots out of secrecy sleeves and then flattening them before running them through a counting machine.
Barb Byrum is the Ingham County Clerk, where nearly just under a month away from the primary, a total of 28,474 AV Ballots have been requested, and 8,883 AV Ballots have been received back by the clerk’s office.
“What we will likely see is clerks not being able to report on unofficial results at the closer polls or even hours after the polls closed, or perhaps a day after the polls closed. And what that does is it impacts voter confidence,” said Byrum.
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.
The Proposed Fix
In Michigan, Byrum says there’s 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 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“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,” said Byrum.
There are bills in the state legislature to change the law. But, it’s uncertain if and when they’ll pass. Democratic Representatives Leslie Love (D-Detroit) and Kara Hope (D-Holt) proposed increasing funding for local governments to buy new voting equipment and hiring additional election workers.
The bills propose counting the Monday before an election. Others are more extreme, Representative Vanessa Guerra’s would change the rule, allowing clerks to begin counting a week before election day.
Measures from state house and senate Republican’s would allow more watered-down changes to the law. Former Secretary of State and current senator, Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) proposed a change in the law to allow clerks to start opening the outside envelope of ballots the day before the election, and allowing election officials to work in shifts.
“You can’t make people work forty hours straight and expect them to come back,” said Johnson.
The bills passed unanimously out of committee but when they were brought to the floor, Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) declared them dead on arrival.
“We need to give the clerks more credit. They understand what they’re up against. And so let’s see what kind of solutions and creativity they come up with,” said Shirkey.
Rep. Julie Calley (R-Portland) initially bristled at the idea of early processing, questioning what would happen to voters who wanted to change their votes last minute, especially this year with the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls being culled in real-time. However, she’s proposed a change to the law involving communities working together to count absentee ballots (assisting local communities without staff or resources to count AV ballots quickly).
However, after Sen. Johnson’s legislation failed it’s unclear whether the House-side legislation will suffer a similar fate.
In a statement from a spokesperson Wednesday, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson expressed her disappointment.
"Senator Shirkey is ignoring simple math, facts, and the expertise of the clerks who administer our elections. He’s also posturing to make the bills that recently passed the senate elections committee look like the middle ground when experts unanimously say they don't go far enough," Benson said in the statement.
The Democratic Secretary of State has been trying to persuade legislators to change the law since she began serving in office.
“You’ve got legislators making decisions who have not run elections under these new rights. And so, they have not experienced that. They have not been on the front lines and they haven't seen firsthand how this is a basic, easy solution to make things run more easily, more smooth and more securely on election day,” said Benson.
Benson added, “The vast majority of our citizens and the country will be wanting to hear from Michigan sooner rather than later. And that pressure, what media pressure that public pressure is going to be put on those clerks.”
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. “I've talked to clerks that say they want to retire before November because they know they're being put in an impossible situation,” said Swope.
He recalled the 2018 midterms, in which the calls for the gubernatorial race and eighth congressional district were held up by just 12,000 absentee ballots. Swope said election officials were up counting until 4 a.m.
This isn’t the only potential voting issue this year.
Other Potential Pitfalls
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.
“It's gonna be the largest turnout we've ever had an election in Michigan. And we're gonna 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,” said Grebner.
President Trump won Michigan with under 11,000 votes. Grebner says if the results are close in the Presidential or U.S. Senate race, it could be two days after the election before a winner is declared. He says people should start getting used to that idea now.