Ask the Clerk
This election season represents Michigan's first major election with widespread no-reason absentee voting, which came about with the passage of Proposal 3 in 2018. So it stands to reason not everyone is entirely confident with the process. Complicating the scenario is the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has made voting from home not just a convenience but a necessity for many.
Yet exposure to rhetoric meant to sow doubt in the integrity of the election process has some voters wondering — and worried about — what their best option is or whether an absentee vote even counts the same as a vote cast in person.
"The only thing I can say is for people that are concerned, or they're doubters maybe, they should work a counting board," said Melanie Halas, city clerk of Royal Oak.
She is referring to the paid workers who process and tabulate the absentee ballots.
"Because I can't even tell you all the people that were able to work in the August election — they were like, 'Wow,'" she said. "It's just a machine, the way everything works and how everything — when you do get so many ballots per tray let's say, and they go through the scanner, that scanner number has to be the exact same number that was on the report that went with that tray to that scanner. … It is constantly checked and balanced throughout the day. There's also challengers in the counting board, who are watching the whole process. So it's a very safe and secure process."
How Your Ballot Gets Counted
For those curious about exactly what happens to their absentee ballot once the clerk receives it, Halas has the answer. First of all, ballots remain locked up until processing begins.
According to Michigan law, absentee ballots cannot be counted until the morning of Election Day. However, state lawmakers recently passed a bill that permits cities with at least 25,000 people to start pre-processing absentee ballots at 10 a.m. on Nov. 2. Pre-processing includes taking ballots out of their outer envelopes and sorting them so that it's easier to tabulate votes on Election Day.
"We do not start counting any ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day," Halas said.
She explained the election inspectors work in teams made up of different political parties.
"What they do is they first have a team that just opens the envelopes; we have teams that just take the secrecy sleeve out of the envelopes," Halas said.
Another team ensures that the number on the ballot matches the number on the envelope.
"And then we have another group of teams, they put those ballots in a pile," Halas said. "We have another group of teams that they take those ballots to the scanner, then we have another group that they're the ones tabulating the ballots — so it's all different teams with different parts.
"There's so many checks and balances that we go through," she continued.
Halas wanted to clear up a widespread misconception about absentee voting: that those ballots are not always counted.
"The biggest [myth] that we hear all the time is that they say absentees are not counted [unless] the race is close," Halas said. "That is not true. Every single ballot is counted. As long as it's returned on time. It has to be here by 8 p.m. election night but we ask as soon as you vote that ballot you return it. We really appreciate it. But yes, every single ballot is counted."
Protecting Voters at the Polls
For many, either out of desire or necessity, voting in person may be the only option. Voting during a pandemic is something Halas said they had a trial run with during the August primary, and she described the setup.
"We have PPE at all the precincts," Halas said. "So all of the workers have masks on, they have sanitizer, we have the distancing for the floors so voters know where to stand. We also have sanitizer for the voters as well. If for some reason a voter walks in, forgets their mask, we do have disposable masks the voters can have if they want to wear one."
Constantly wiping down the voting booths and sanitizing them is another way voters are protected at the polls. Halas also said there are no longer pens attached to strings in the individual booths; when a voter walks in, the pen they pick up and use is theirs to take out of the precinct.
"We're just doing everything that we can think of to make it as safe as possible and make the voters feel safe as well," Halas said.
Because the potential for voter intimidation has been in the news lately, we asked Halas for her thoughts on that subject. The election administrator sounded confident that it will not be tolerated.
"For all of my precincts we have a lot of seasoned workers," Halas explained. "So even though I've hired a lot of new workers, I still have my seasoned chairs and co-chairs that are coming back and they know the protocols and the processes, and they know if someone is giving someone a hard time they are gonna call my office immediately and we are gonna send someone to the precinct to find out what's going on."
Halas urged voters to be kind to those workers, both seasoned and new.
"I just hope that when voters come into the precincts that they realize the election workers, it's a long day for them," Halas said. "It's a busy day. I just hope that they are kind to the inspectors.
"And I know a lot of people have a lot of opinions about the candidates, and the workers are just there to get you your ballot and have your ballot tabulated. They're there to help you out. And so that's really my only concern is because it's quite a climate we're in right now as far as the election in general. That's what I'm most concerned about."
Fortunately, one positive byproduct of intensified interest in the election process this year is that more people stepped up to work the polls.
"I have never, in 20-plus years of working here — it's the first time I've never had to say, 'Please, we need election inspectors, we need more help,'" Halas said. "We have had an abundance of people who have applied. It's been awesome. I've never seen this before."
Note: For those who have not yet returned their completed absentee ballots, please return them to your clerk's office or a ballot drop box to ensure their timely arrival. For the location of clerks' offices, ballot drop boxes and more, see the Voter Information Center: https://mvic.sos.state.mi.us Track your absentee ballot online here: https://mvic.sos.state.mi.us/Voter/Index