Clerks brace to count record number of absentee ballots

Elections

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Tuesday’s primary election will be the biggest test so far for absentee voting in Michigan.

A record number of absentee ballots have been issued in Kent County alone.

“This is the first time voting absentee,” David Navarro said after filling out an absentee ballot at Grand Rapid City Hall Monday afternoon.

He wasn’t alone. Joshua Duggan also decided to go the absentee ballot route this time.

“I just came in and did everything right there. I’m happy to have that option,” he said.

Michigan voters paved the way for no-reason absentee balloting in 2018 and COVID-19 has convinced more and more voters to send in their vote ahead of time.

The Kent County Clerk’s Office issued an 127,000 absentee ballots for Tuesday’s primary. As of Monday, 73,000 had been returned. That includes the 35,000 ballots sent to Grand Rapids city voters. Of those, 22,000 have been returned, a rate of about 60%.

Before the 2018 ballot initiative, the number absentee ballots returned was in the 90% range. Local clerks say one reason may be that those voting absentee before the change in the law were older, more traditional voters.

“We kind of saw that in March. We kind of saw that in the municipal elections, too — a larger falloff of absentee ballots returned,” Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp said.

Ottawa County also saw a large number of absentee ballot requests. Some 61,000 were issued, with about 38,000 returned as of Monday morning.

City and township clerk’s offices have set up drop boxes for those who haven’t already sent in their ballots.

The drop box in downtown Kalamazoo where voters can submit their absentee ballots. (Nick Ponton/WOOD TV8, file)

If you haven’t received an absentee ballots, you can still vote the old-fashioned way, in person at your local precinct.

“Polling locations are open and ready with proper (personal protective equipment),” Hondorp said. “It’s going to be different, but it’s just like when you go to any store right now, it’s different.”

COUNTING THE VOTES

State law allows election officials to begin counting absentee ballots when in-person polls open up at 7 a.m. on election day.

Anyone in the room while votes are tallied, from election workers to poll watchers, is sequestered until the polls close.

“Their cellphones are taken from them so that way they can’t report out to anybody what they’re seeing, as far as numbers,” Hondorp said.

Before the count can begin, a series of procedures needs to be followed, like making sure the votes counted from a particular precinct matches the actual number of ballots received.

“Just the simple process of opening that many envelopes, that takes a long time,” Hondorp said.

Depending on the election turnout, that process could delay the unofficial results.

More vote tabulators could help. There have been some federal funds made available for that equipment.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, is pushing for legislation to allow clerks to prep — but not count — absentee ballots ahead of election day. So far, the bills have stalled in the Republican-led Legislature. One concern is that once absentee ballot envelopes are opened, voters lose the ability to cancel or spoil their original ballot and fill out a new one on election day.

Hondorp doesn’t expect Tuesday’s count to go too late, but November could be a different story. He said the solutions needs to come from Lansing.

“Either the Legislature can give us more time or the Legislature could allocate more money,” he said.

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