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  • By Lisa Brody

Pandemic vote: ballots to start coming this month

“Vote early and vote often.” That tongue-in-cheek election phrase, believed to have first been uttered in 1856 by John Van Buren, an attorney and son of President Martin Van Buren, as an anti-slavery Free Soil Party leader, although it has also been attributed to Chicago gangster Al Capone, the Tammany Hall political machine leaders of the 1860s, and even Nazi leaders when seizing of power in 1933. While voters today can't “vote often,” this year in particular they are being encouraged to vote early. And it is being portrayed not as a scam, other than by a few, but as a civic duty. Technically, the November 3 general election is still almost two months away, and with it the debates, flyers, signs, rabid discussions and non-stop advertising. In reality, the ability to vote is merely weeks away, with Michigan clerks beginning to mail absentee ballots on September 28. Michigan voters in November 2018 had the opportunity to decide the fate of Proposal 3, called Promote the Vote, an effort to bring same-day voter registration, no-reason absentee voting, automatic voter registration and other changes to Michigan's election law. The ballot issue also restored straight-ticket voting, which the state legislature in 2015 abolished after being allowed for 127 years. The ballot issue was approved, 67 percent to 33 percent, with over 2.7 million Michigan voters supporting the proposal. Michigan is now in line with 37 other states and Washington D.C. which permit voters to obtain an absentee ballot with no reason needed. Numerous other states also already allow same day registration as long as a voter has photo ID and proof of residency. The state of Idaho, for example, has encouraged same day voter registration as far back as 1994. In addition, Proposal 3 provides the right to vote in a secret ballot; ensures military service members and overseas voters can obtain ballots; automatically registers citizens to vote at the Secretary of State's office unless the citizen declines; allows a citizen to register to vote anytime with proof of residency; and ensures the accuracy and integrity of elections by auditing election results. The changes to elections were enacted immediately, but the first major test was the primary in August, with the grand kahuna coming up – the November presidential election. Local municipal and county clerks are gearing up for an unprecedented turnout of voters, all exercising their constitutional right, and privilege, to vote. And while it is a huge responsibility, tons of work and exhausting, clerks are excited and ready. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, sent out absentee ballot applications to all of the state's registered voters who were not already on their municipality's permanent absentee ballot list for the primary election – a move she is doing once again for the general election, said she felt it was a benefit to voters in the primary. “Absolutely it was. It's why there were so many citizens voting absentee, on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “My goal is to have people exercise their rights.” State Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly), who was Benson's predecessor as secretary of state, strongly believes in no-reason absentee voting, “I ran on it, and I got booed for it, until I explained what it was,” but is very strongly opposed to sending out mass mailings to all voters offering them the opportunity to apply for an absentee ballot. “Hundreds of thousands of absentee ballot requests went to people who were ineligible to vote,” Johnson said, noting some registered voters had passed away, moved, or even moved out of state without alerting their local clerk's office or secretary of state office. “Some clerks were equipped to handle it, (but) some were overwhelmed (by the number of absentee ballot applications).” To Johnson, it all smells of rank partisanship, as well as having the potential for voter fraud, where someone who is not qualified to vote, such as an immigrant with the ability to have a drivers' license, but is not a legal citizen. That person could believe they can apply and receive an absentee ballot, and vote. “I sent a letter to the secretary of state (Benson) on August 18 – I feel she needs to clean it up first,” Johnson said. “You can't have questions after about election results. “The secretary of state's office should be non-partisan,” Johnson emphasized. “I treated it that way.” Benson has countered that the mailings help cull the voter rolls by helping the state become aware of those voters who have moved or are dead, and help remove them from the qualified voter file. She also noted that signature verification – where clerks match the signatures they have on file to the ones on absentee ballot applications – helps prevent fraud. “Voters will have voter choices that they can exercise safely. They can exercise their right to vote early at their clerk's office or by mail,” Benson said. “The only variable is what we categorize as from outside – foreign or domestic – or from outside influence.” On August 26, the Michigan Court of Claims dismissed a suit challenging Benson's authority to send out absentee ballot applications to all registered voters, determining she has the power even when no requests have been made. Compounding citizens right to vote this year is the coronavirus pandemic, which is highly contagious. Many people are choosing the option to vote absentee as a safe alternative to heading to their neighborhood polling place. “With COVID-19, many people are reluctant to go to precincts. In Michigan, we are well positioned for voting absentee because of the passage of Proposal 3,” said Barbara McQuade, professor at University of Michigan law school, political commentator and former U.S. Attorney for Eastern District of Michigan. She noted that she believes this year it's actually a duty to stay home and vote absentee, in order to “leave the polls available for those who need or choose to go, whether because of illness, or handicapped accessibility. Think of it as the handicapped parking space – we leave it for others.” “In considering best practices for administering elections during a pandemic, lawmakers must take into account the health and safety of not just those involved in the voting process but also members of entire state populations who could be negatively affected if proper precautions are not taken,” pointed out Danielle Root of the Center for American Progress. “In order to keep voters, poll workers, and especially populations at risk of COVID-19 safe, state and national leaders must take immediate action to fortify the voting process and protect voters and nonvoters alike.” “It's essential we vote,” McQuade emphasized. “I feel an obligation to vote that was so hard fought,” referencing the centennial anniversary of woman's suffrage and the civil rights struggle. “We just need to do it safely.” Both Benson and Johnson, along with political prognosticators on both sides of the aisle, are anticipating a record voter turnout in November's election. “Michigan will likely top 70 percent turnout,” Benson said. “That's about 5 million voters. We had about 2.5 million voters in the August primary – without a statewide contested election.” Of those 2.5 million votes cast, Benson said 1.6 million votes were done by mail, or absentee. “We're anticipating we could receive three million absentee ballots in November, which is almost double the number of 2016's,” Johnson said. While President Donald Trump continues to cast aspersions and ramps up fear of mail-in voting, the facts just don't support his theories. “Absentee ballots are a subset of mail-in voting,” McQuade said, “because you can mail them in or drop them at a ballot box.” She suggested that perhaps Trump is remembering the past, when only those who were not in their district on election day could legitimately apply for absentee ballots – which is no longer valid in most of the country. She explained that, just as in Michigan prior to Proposal 3, “once it was only for those who had a reason to be absent from their polling place on election day. Now, the numbers are much larger. Even if people aren't absent from their district, many states permit them to utilize their absentee ballots. I think some have confusion on the difference.” “Voting absentee or by mail is a safe, trusted and age-old practice. Moreover, expanded access to absentee voting comports with conservative principles, which helps explain why a number of conservative state policymakers have advanced proposals to achieve it. Finally, and critically, policymakers should take note that polling data indicate very clearly that the public strongly favors expanded access to absentee voting and that its results are partisan-neutral,” said Kevin Kosar of R Street, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy research organization. Ben Ptashnick, president of National Election Defense Coalition, disagrees because he said research shows that vote by mail efforts “disenfranchise a lot of minorities, youth and Native Americans. “With how much they move, how stable their living facilities are, how well their mail is catching up with them or if they have to re-register to vote, especially with youth, there's a reduced participation, by 10, 15, to 20 percent,” with vote by mail efforts,” he said. “It is true that it would be safer for COVID-19 to vote by mail, and safer for seniors to vote by mail, but civil rights experts note that whenever there are vote by mail efforts, minorities are left behind,” Ptashnick said. “Blacks and Latinos are used to voting in person. Blacks are used to standing in line to vote – once they were allowed to vote in person. Trust levels by minorities are very low for voting by mail – 28 percent of Blacks do not want to vote by mail, and 25 percent of Latinos. They say they just do not want to put their ballot in the box. “It's not something you want to initiate in a crucial election.” There are actually five states – Colorado, Washington, Hawaii, Oregon and Utah, a Republican bastion – that only have mail-in voting. In those states, there is no in-person voting at precincts. And it's not a new phenomenon. Oregon has had all mail voting since 2000, and Colorado, since 2016. Despite claims of increased fraud – or of “rigged elections” – with increased usage of absentee ballots, the truth is quite different. “Oregon has had strictly mail-in voting – no polls – since 2000, and the level of fraud was minute,” McQuade said. “Out of 100 million ballots cast in 20 years, they have documented 12 cases of fraud. That is .00001 percent. “A voter has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than experiencing fraud at the polls,” she emphasized. Besides clerks having to compare signatures on the absentee ballots to what they have on file here in Michigan, “there is a bar code (on the ballot) that is tracked all the way to the poll,” she said. “Those safeguards are in place to prevent fraud. Absentees for this election are the safest way to prevent fraud and to leave the polls for those who need, must or want to go to them.” Local municipal clerks saw turnout increase significantly for this August's primary, as well as the use of absentee ballots. Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said that countywide turnout in August 2020 was a little over 37 percent, with a record number of absentee ballots. “We set a record for voter turnout in a primary,” Brown said. “It's a good thing when more people participate.” Her crystal ball is still cloudy figuring out November's forecast. “November will be the first big election since (Proposal) 18-3, it's first big test,” Brown noted. “So many people just did vote by absentee ballot, so I think they'll vote that way. It'll be interesting.” Around the county, many local municipalities, large and small, reported increased turnout as well as a surge in usage of absentee ballots. Troy Clerk Aileen Dickson, who has been in office about 20 years, said because of that she usually has a good expectation of turnout. Troy, she said, had a total turnout of 38 percent of their 59,000 registered voters and 74 percent voted absentee – compared to the previous presidential year, 2016, when in August they had a total turnout of 17 percent, and 52 percent voted absentee. “All of my statistics I've had to throw out the window. Usually, it's an even-year August. Nope. I've had to throw them all out. It's just a huge turnout for an August election,” Dickson said. “All of my models and predictability are out the window. I have to rebuild them all.” She said the March presidential primary was the first election they held since the passage of Proposal 3. “That election is always low. That was the first glimpse into the turnout. We had 35 percent turnout, with a much bigger absentee at 50 percent, which wouldn't have ever happened before,” she said. “That wasn't because of COVID-19. We were already ramping up due to Proposal 3.” Dickson said since the COVID-19 pandemic, it has all become exponentially more difficult for clerks. “For the November election, we have about 30,000 absentee applications waiting,” she said. “A humungous total of our registered voters have already applied and are waiting, and we're getting more and more applications every day.” She said in August, they did receive a few same day voter registration applications, but not many, which she believes is because her office held a few weekend registration drives and pushed online registration. “We have over 1,000 people that did the online secretary of state application, and then turned right around and voted absentee,” Dickson said. “I think it helped a lot of people and it took some of the burden off of us.” “Proposal 18-3 has caused a lot more work for clerks across the state but as a public servant I appreciate how the new laws are more accommodating to voters,” said Alexandria Bingham, city clerk designee in Birmingham, which had a 39 percent turnout in the August 2020 primary, with 29 percent of those voting absentee, compared to a 19 percent voter turnout in 2016, of which less than nine percent voted absentee. For November, they are already expecting to mail more than 7,500 absentee ballots out of a total of 18,308 registered voters, “and we'll continue to mail ballots as requested before the Friday, October 30, mailing deadline.” She is preparing for 100 percent turnout between Birmingham's absentee and in-person voters, understanding that already 40 percent of Birmingham voters have requested an absentee ballot, looking for extra assistance at the clerk's office and carefully calculating and predicting her election supply orders. “I see the increased demand of absentee voting and overall voter turnout as an exciting challenge for clerks,” Bingham said. “It takes proactive planning and organization to be successful in running any election and even more so with Proposal 18-3 and COVID-19 accommodations. Absentee voting can be more convenient and enable voters to vote early if they can't (or prefer not to) make it to their designated polling place on Election Day.” A nice by-product, she noted, of the increase in absentee voters, is that “in August, I noticed that all the live polling locations were running smoother with less traffic. There were almost no lines or wait times throughout the day. I want voters to feel reassured that they can vote safely in-person or by mail – it's always the voter's choice.” Turnout in Bloomfield Hills was 42 percent, which was about the same as in August 2018, Bloomfield Hills Clerk Amy Burton said. “Absentee ballots was where we saw the big difference. We issued 1,600, and we received 1,200 back. In 2018, we issued about 600. There was only 12 percent turnout at the precincts,” she said. For a small municipality, Burton said they did receive a number of same-day voters registering and voting. “We had about a dozen,” she said. “We usually do have some. Anecdotally, I think a lot of it for us is from the Cranbrook Educational Community – residential students or teachers who are changing their status.” Burton said her goal for the November election is to get out consistently – and frequently – before residents with enews blasts about how they can get their absentee ballots and how to get them back to her efficiently. “We are open – our city hall is open. We have an outdoor drop box but you can come in and put it in the box in our lobby too,” she said. “It's there 24/7. We check them frequently – several times a day. Almost 48 percent of Bloomfield Township voters voted in the August primary, compared to 31 percent in the August 2016 election. “Oh my gosh, we issued over 15,000 absentee ballots,” Bloomfield Township Clerk Jan Roncelli said, out of a total 37,175 registered voters. She said the biggest problem they had was not from voters, despite about 200 spoiled ballots because they did not understand they could not cross party lines in the primary, but with the post office. Birmingham had 123 spoiled ballots; Troy had about 300; West Bloomfield reported a significant amount; Bloomfield Hills had none. “We had huge, huge problems with the mail delivery, and we had lots of people come into the office who had been mailed their absentee ballots, but it had never arrived,” she said, noting one mailing took 13 days to get to residents. “That's unacceptable. When we spoke with the post office, they said they didn't see a problem.” She was glad residents made appointments to come into the clerk's office to get another ballot, or to vote at their polling precinct. “At least they voted,” she said. Roncelli noted that unlike in some other states, it does not matter if the absentee ballots returned are postmarked or not. They just must be returned no later than 8 p.m. Tuesday night, election night. “Yes, many of our returned ballots come from our drop box. It doesn't matter if they're postmarked, or if they're returned without postage. They just have to arrive by Tuesday at 8 p.m.,” Roncelli said. The day after the election, and for days after, Roncelli said, absentee ballots continued to trickle in by mail. “They're still trickling in from the March election” from the post office, she added. “We have to go in and reject those, with the reason being that we received those after election day,” Roncelli said. “We have to reject those ballots because we issued those ballots.” She said the total number of rejected ballots from each municipality is automatically posted on the qualified voter file maintained by the Secretary of State's office, which can then be accessed by the county. “It's how they know exactly how many and which ballots I issued, how many I received back. It's also the way a voter can track the status of their ballot, and how the state gets all of their statistics,” she said. Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton said they had more than 22,000 voters in the August primary, a 40 percent turnout, with 16,378 absentee ballots returned. “In August 2016, we had a 19 percent turnout, and had only 9,000 total voters,” just under 6,000 of which were absentee, she said. “Our absentee ballot counting board jumped from 20 people to about 70. Mayor Bryan Barnett closed down the entire city hall to any business – city workers could work from home or they could work as an election worker and get paid – and a lot jumped in and helped.” She said many people were afraid to visit precincts, or believed they might be closed due to COVID-19, and despite sending out information, she had to bring in an extra co-worker to answer phones that day. “Precincts were calling saying people had not received their absentee ballots or they were surrendering their ballots, they had spoiled their ballots by crossing party lines.” This election, she said, she had less than 10 people register to vote same day. But she anticipates November to look more like last March “when the majority of new voters were 18 to 25 year olds. Those kids will not be in college. The lines we experienced in March, we'll see in November again, only bigger.” Barton, like all other clerks and Michigan Secretary of State Benson, is encouraging voters to not mail their ballots back in November, but to return them to drop boxes at their local clerks' office. Troy's Dickson is even asking the Troy City Council to let her office offer a two-day drive by absentee ballot pickup at Troy City Hall the weekend before they're scheduled to mail them out. “It's something we've never done before, but we've never had this kind of need before,” Dickson said. Residents would show their ID, and clerks would retrieve absentee ballots from a bin. “We work really closely with the Troy Post Office, and we know they do everything they can do to get our mail out, but there are breakdowns in the system.” “The primary had volume; this one will have volume and vitriol,” said West Bloomfield Clerk Debbie Binder. Noting they had a very busy primary season, Binder said West Bloomfield had 40 percent total turnout in the August primary, of which 77 percent were absentee voters. Similarly, in March they had a 37 percent turnout. In the August primary in 2016, just 23 percent of West Bloomfield voters exercised their right. “From August of 2016 to August 2020, there was an 86 percent increase in total ballots and a 177 percent increase in absentee ballots,” Binder said. Precincts, she said, saw a definite decrease in turnout. “The highest number of absentees prior to this election was November 2012, a general election, when we had 15,615 absentees. This time, we had 16,777, for a primary,” she said. “With very realistic forecasting for the presidential election, we know we're going to have 85 to 90 percent turnout in November. With about 54,000 registered voters in West Bloomfield, that means about 35,000 absentee ballots to process. We're talking a huge difference. “There was very little in both (March and August 2020) to bring Republicans out,” Binder noted. “The numbers will skyrocket in November. We're getting the word out.” She said they received about 65 to 75 late ballots in August, “but we got the word out that the mail was late and really promoted the drop box. “We don't want to discourage people mailing their ballots because we have a large population that uses the mail – snowbirds, college students, seniors in assisted living facilities. The only recourse we have is voter education,” she said. Binder said they had 30 to 40 people register same day in August. “In March, we had 79 people. In March, Ann Arbor had 1,200,” she pointed out, when students were still in school (March 10, prior to lockdown). “I think we'll have a larger number in November. We could get a huge number of same day with a lot of college students at home. We may also be able to get some of them back as election workers. “Most of the changes with Proposal 3 were for the better, but there were some unintended challenges – which for clerks was same day registration, which the bulk of come late in the day,” Binder said. “For a municipality of our size, we need four clerks just dedicated to same day registration, because many are also then voting absentee. They're spending between 10 and 15 minutes with a voter. It's resource-intense operation.” “Smaller elections had 71, 72, 76 and 77 percent absentee ballot turnouts, but now we have COVID-19. That's why those bills that Sen. Ruth Johnson has sponsored are so critical. It's just math and what's physically possible – and it's what other states have done.” Binder is referring to two Senate bills Johnson has introduced, one, Senate Bill 756, which would permit shifts of election workers to work; the other, Senate Bill 757, to allow municipal and county clerks to open the outer envelope of absentee ballots on the Monday prior to the election to expedite processing on election day. “There are about 30,000 election workers, and the average age is 72,” Johnson pointed out. “The current law says once you come in to a precinct or election area, you cannot leave for the whole day. You have to surrender your phone. It's unfair to expect someone to work what could be 30 hours. It's to allow shifts of workers. They would still be sequestered, there would still be checks and balances. I think this is so, so important. “It's hard enough to get them to work.” Johnson said SB 756 passed the state Senate unanimously in June, but is stalled in the state House. SB 757, to permit preprocessing of the secrecy sleeve of absentee ballots, has been held up by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). “It would permit high speed openers to open the secrecy sleeve on the Monday before an election from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. for municipalities with populations of 25,000 or more,” Johnson said, noting there could be citizen and party involvement. “Clerks could register numbers, which take a lot of time,” she said. “This would really help clerks and election workers. It would not divulge any votes and it would have checks and balances. “I would really like these to pass. COVID has really created challenges for us,” Johnson said. Local clerks interviewed by Downtown are in favor of both bills. “Absolutely. It is a critical need for clerks,” Binder said. “Opening the day before is of the utmost importance to us. We're looking to process a huge number of ballots. As for shifts of workers – it's inhumane to keep people that long. You're dealing with human beings, not just counting ballots.” Dickson of Troy would be thrilled to have either bill pass. “Right now, I know I will be awake for 48 hours” in November. “I'd be fine with either one. We're under the assumption nothing is going to change under election law – but it would be really nice if it did, if we could do preprocessing where you slice open the pre-envelope, or if they approved putting the ballot in the processor, but not the tabulator until election day.” “My priority is not speed – it's safety and security. Our focus is on making all 60 people working on our absentee ballot counting board feel safe,” she said. “We had PPE. We changed everything about how we sit, had lunch, had breaks, how we spaced people out. The whole place smelled like cleaning solution. People who worked in August all want to come back.” “Processing ballots before election day seems like an awkward practice to me, but I also see the need,” said Bingham of Birmingham. “I care deeply about elections being held with integrity and transparency so long as the practice is secure and consistent across the state. I am confident that the clerks needing this method will be able to adapt if this law is passed. The demands on absentee voting have more than doubled in our jurisdiction and I can't even imagine how much stress that amount of work feels to clerks in larger jurisdictions or clerks who have less resources. Rapid mechanical letter openers and high speed tabulators are amazing tools but even with assistance of these devices, counting all of those ballots is still an enormous and critical job.” “I definitely support it,” said Amy Burton of Bloomfield Hills. “There has to be the option for those communities that really need it. There are best practices that have been put into place. Other states have it, and do it safely.” Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said she definitely supports both legislative measures, with one caveat. “I don't support it being limited to municipalities of a certain size (25,000 or more population),” she said. “Every municipality has to do the same work, regardless of size.” Dickson said the bigger issue she faces – echoed by other clerks – is getting enough election workers. “We're crying for more workers,” she said. “I hear it from everyone. And then we expect them to work for 20 to 24 hours. We had a lot of people signed up to work until about four weeks before, then they kept cancelling, until and through the day of the election, many because they didn't want to be out in a crowd. We usually have a backup plan – we always have cancellations, but this time we had already used up people on our backup list and it was too late to get more. “We did OK. We didn't have shortages. We shuffled people around.” “We need 20 to 30 more workers for November, to beef up the reserves,” Binder of West Bloomfield said. “For sustainability, we need to engage younger workers. It's a paid position. Most younger workers coming the first time come for the money, but when they learn what a long day it is, they don't come back. Adults who do it, there is a fulfillment, and they come back even though they know it's a long day.” Brown said the Oakland County Board of Commissioners approved hazard pay of a $50 bonus of all election workers, from $200 to $250 for the day, although individual municipalities determined if they paid it. With the increase in absentee ballots, Brown set up a county election board to assist communities after legislation signed in June to permit their formation. Birmingham was one of 16 municipalities to be part of Oakland County's election board in August. Brown said she currently has 40 municipalities indicating interest in having them help tabulate their absentee results in November, but she does not know if they are all seriously interested – or if so, where she will find a venue large enough for everyone to count ballots. One requirement of participating in the election board was each municipality had to have someone from that municipality be part of the counting board. Cut off for absentees to be part of the election board is 4 p.m. the Monday prior to Election Day; after that, all absentees returned go to their precinct to be processed. “The individual clerk's office still had to check the signatures,” Brown said. Brown, county election workers, and the 16 representatives from each municipalities began in August on Tuesday morning with high speed envelope openers, and “We were done before dinner and up (on the county election site) by 8:01 p.m.,” Brown said. “It's consolidation and it turns out we could have done more.” She acknowledged she was nervous prior, but she and her staff practiced and practiced, assigning each person their own specific task. “We figured out the bottlenecks, ensuring the privacy of that voter is maintained. It's really important. That way we could figure out how many people we needed to hire so it was the most efficient,” she said.

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