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Tuesday primaries will 'stress test' Michigan election system

ballot drop off box
April Baer
Michigan Radio

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 when a record number of votes will be cast via absentee ballot.

The 2020 Michigan 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 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,” said Davis, who lives in Detroit.

Davis said 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 Tuesday 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.

Read more: Here's how to make sure your absentee ballot is received and counted before the Aug. 4 primary

Ballots that are mailed in but arrive after the election day deadline is the number one reason absentee ballots are rejected, and those votes are not counted, according to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

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

Benson said the two other most common reasons absentee ballots are rejected 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.

The Tuesday 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,” said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck.

Roebuck said 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?” he said. “And making sure that our equipment and our voting booths are clean and that voters feel safe”

And voters it is very possible people will 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,” said Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors.

She said that’s 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,” she said. “It’s proof of the commitment that elections officials have to the integrity of the process and counting every single vote.”

So the new reality may be it will be waiting for elections to be called days – not hours -- after the last ballot’s been accepted.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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