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Tuesday Primaries Will “Stress Test” Michigan Election System

Aug 3, 2020

Ballot Box
Credit FutUndBeidl / flickr.com

Don’t wait.  Drop off your ballot in person.  It’s too late to put it in the mail if you want it to be counted.  That’s the advice elections officials are giving voters in advance of Tuesday’s primaries.  It’s expected a record number of votes will be cast via absentee ballot.  Rick Pluta reports on how the 2020 primary is shaping up to be a unique experiment in the future of voting.


A lot of voters want to avoid the dangers of waiting in lines at polling places due to COVID-19.  There’s also the new state law that makes it easier for people to vote from home using an absentee ballot.  But this surge of interest in absentee voting has also led to complications.  Emma Davis of Detroit says she applied online for an absentee ballot.

“With the pandemic and kind of the weird sense of time, I didn’t particularly want to incur an extra risk of waiting at the polls on line on Tuesday.”

She waited several days, but her ballot never arrived.  She went back online and checked the clerk’s website.  She saw that it had not been sent.

“So I started getting a little concerned that I wouldn’t receive the ballot even in time to send it back.”

On Friday, she decided to head into the clerk’s office and waited about 20 minutes in a socially distanced line to get her absentee ballot.  And she brought it home to fill out.  Davis has until 8 PM on Election Day to drop off her ballot.  If she misses that deadline, her ballot won’t be counted.

Also on Friday, the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear a case filed by the League of Women Voters.  It asked the court to require any ballot postmarked by 8 o’clock on the day of the election to be counted.  So the 8 o’clock drop-off is the rule – at least for the primary.  Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says mailed-in ballots arriving after the election day deadline is the Number One reason why absentee ballots are rejected, and those votes are not counted.

“At this point, we encourage people to use the drop boxes that are in nearly every jurisdiction in our state.  You have to use your local dropbox because that is the one your local clerk will use to pick up your ballot on election night, and begin the tabulation process.”

The two other most common reasons absentee ballots are rejected, she says, are people forget to sign the outer envelope, or the signature on the ballot does not match the signature that’s on file with local clerks.  This primary will be a stress test on plans to deal with voting during a health crisis, as well as implementing the wishes of voters who adopted an initiative in 2018 to make it easier to cast an absentee ballot.

“We’re really looking at August as a proving ground for what November could look like.”

Justin Roebuck is the Ottawa County Clerk.  He says he’s going to be looking at how efficiently his operation can tabulate a record number of absentee ballots, but also safely operate polling places for people who still want to show up and vote.

“What do our precincts look like, what is the traffic in the precinct look like, and how can we properly handle that flow with appropriate social distancing measures?  And making sure that our equipment and our voting booths are clean and that voters feel safe."

And voters may not know who the winners and the losers are on election night.

“We need to normalize that election results will take longer when you’ve got a larger number of ballots coming by mail.”

Amy Cohen of the National Association of State Election Directors says true not only in Michigan, but across the country.

“It’s not a sign that there’s a problem, or some kind of problem or some kind of compromise.  It’s proof of the commitment that elections officials have to the integrity of the process and counting every single vote.” 

So, we might just have to get used to the reality that it will become more common for elections to be called days – not hours -- after the last ballot’s been accepted.

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— Rick Pluta is the Managing Editor and Reporter for the Michigan Public Radio network.  Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org