GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — With Michigan’s primary elections just over a month away, a local county clerk is urging for more funding to improve elections.
“Most municipalities are spending more on parking lots than they are on elections,” Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck told News 8 on Tuesday.
That’s why Roebuck went to Washington last week to lobby for more election funding nationwide. He said election administration only represents about 1% of municipal budgets nationally.
“Not just in Michigan, across the country, election administration has been chronically underfunded,” he said.
After the 2020 election, his office saw a dramatic increase in Freedom of Information Act requests, with residents and people from out of state wanting election documents.
“Transparency is so critical, but we have to have the resources to be effectively transparent as well,” he said.
Roebuck said more funding will help make sure there’s enough staff to handle those requests.
“That can affect voter confidence in the process if an election official is inadequately staffed to be transparent,” Roebuck said. “In order for us to operate in a fair and transparent manner, we do need the support of our communities and we need the support of our state and federal government as well.”
Roebuck explained that Michigan’s decentralized election process makes it unique in the U.S. Local clerks in cities and townships work together with county clerk’s offices to administer elections.
“In many states the county runs the election operation from start to finish,” he said. “That’s not the case in Michigan. Michigan has over 1,200 municipalities across the state.”
Roebuck said counties play a critical role in the process.
“We are responsible for a massive amount of candidate filings,” he said. “We are the campaign finance official for all county-level races and local races. We program the ballots. We train election workers. We accumulate the results on election night unofficially. We’re responsible for coordinating the certification of the election as well as a post-election audit.”
Roebuck’s office has two full-time election workers. He only had one dedicated worker before January, when the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners added another permanent position in their office.
“Handling that with one or two staff members can be a significant challenge,” Roebuck said. “It is a significant challenge.”
For the Kalamazoo County Clerk’s Office, there’s just one dedicated full-time election worker, according to Kalamazoo County Clerk Meredith Place. That position wasn’t added until 2019, when the county board added the resources for a full-time position.
Since the 2020 election, Roebuck says there has been a “brain drain” of local election officials on the ground.
“We’ve seen a lot of early retirements,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of folks moving on to other career options.”
Roebuck said the significant turnover has been with city and town clerks.
“They’re the ones who are setting up precincts on Election Day,” he said. “They’re the one who are issuing ballots to voters, absentee ballots prior to election, they have a lot at stake when it comes to election administration at the local level.”
Place told News 8 that in the last six months she’s seen several clerk positions opened up in cities and townships in Kalamazoo County.
In a Wednesday statement to News 8, Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons said that while her department runs a “pretty lean operation as it is,” she has not seen more employees leaving than normal and isn’t experiencing a shortage, though she said she is seeing fewer applications come in for open positions.
“Staffing in our elections division has remained consistent throughout my tenure as clerk, and we’re not hearing of anything at the local clerk level that raises concerns,” Posthumus Lyons said. “Retirements are not uncommon every few years, and those roles are replaced rather quickly with qualified individuals. We continued to be very fortunate in Kent County to have quality, dedicated election officials serving the public.”
Roebuck said whether additional money comes from the federal government, the state or local leaders, it’s time to make it happen.
“Election administration is the heart of our Democratic process,” he said. “It’s the process we use to choose our government. We have to adequately fund election operations.”
As the state prepares for primary elections this August, Roebuck predicted there will be more turnover to come with election workers.
“That is one of the challenges we’re going to continue to face in election administration particularly if we don’t receive the adequate funding that ultimately we need from the federal state and local level,” he said.