Bills aim to ease counting burden of absentee ballot spike

Elections

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — More than 2.1 million people have requested to vote absentee in the November election, according to numbers released by the Michigan Secretary of State Thursday. 

The number is already higher than the record-setting 2 million requests sent ahead of the August primary, which resulted in more than 1.6 million votes actually cast absentee. Officials project some 3 million votes could be cast absentee in the Nov. 3 general election.

As more absentee ballots are requested and returned, counting boards face longer shifts and mounting pressure to still return results quickly despite unprecedented turnout.

Part of the problem is that current Michigan law allows absentee ballots to be checked only beginning at 7 a.m. Election Day and absent voter counting boards must work however long it takes to tabulate all cast within their jurisdiction.

“Verifying the voter’s name on the ballot matches the poll list, the ballot number matches the poll list that’s on the envelope and the ballot number that’s on the detachable stub matches the envelope as well. Then opening the envelope, flattening the ballot out and getting it ready for processing and putting it through a tabulator. That’s at minimum about 45 seconds,” Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck listed of the initial processing that  must done for each individual ballot. “And when you think about that extrapolated over thousands and thousands of ballots, it is a math problem. It’s a math equation.”

Concerns surrounding delays in processing the ballots and potential fatigue for workers has garnered legislative response in Lansing.

SENATE BILL 757

The most relevant bill currently addressing the issue is S.B. 757, introduced by Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Groveland Township, earlier this year. 

As written currently, the bill would grant a jurisdiction big enough to qualify for added processing time an additional 10 hours the day before the election to prepare, but not tabulate, absentee ballots.

That size threshold is still being debated, Johnson said. The current draft lists 25,000 as the population requirement. 

“We need to get that one through because clerks need to train,” the former Michigan secretary of state told News 8 Thursday. “The Senate majority leader (Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake) told me that he’s planning on taking this bill up next week and then we’ll be calling the House to try to get them to take it up as soon as possible.”

“I certainly think (legislators) are acknowledging the fact that it (the bill) needs to move quickly,” Roebuck acknowledged. “This bill gives us a window of time that is significant.”

Another aspect to the bill is that it would make November something of a trial run.

“Rather than being a law in perpetuity, it will be a law that sunsets right after the election,” Johnson explained. “So we can examine it, see what works best and make sure there’s no unintended consequences before we consider making it a law in perpetuity.”

SENATE BILL 756

Another Johnson bill that’s already in the House is Senate Bill 756. It would allow a jurisdiction to create a second shift for the absent voter counting board. 

It’s a helpful approach to logistics that would make sense in Kent County, where some worked more than 20 hours straight for last month’s primary.

“I think the way this legislation is drafted I think is going to be very important for us to have come November,” Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons told News 8 Friday. 

To ensure security and integrity, the bill’s language requires the first shift stay at the counting place until the polls close, even if the second shift has taken over.

It passed the Senate unanimously and works “with the same rules that they have now, which is that they’re sequestered. They’re not allowed to use their phone except for emergencies and they can’t tell anybody what that tally is,” Johnson explained.

“We want to make sure all of our election workers are sharp-eyed and that they’re not fatigued because we cannot sacrifice our accuracy and our security this election,” Lyons said.

Absentee ballots will start going out to voters as early as Sept. 24.

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