September 27, 2020
As local and county election clerks from across the state of Michigan, our most important responsibility is ensuring that elections in our state are conducted in a safe, secure, and reliable manner.
Our collective staff and poll workers labor tirelessly to achieve this goal because we know how important well-run elections are to the people of Michigan. But we fear that Michigan’s clerks risk being placed into a nearly impossible situation this November.
The challenges are entirely foreseeable — a never-before-seen increase of absent voter ballots, which are enormously time-intensive to process; staffing and training challenges due to the continued prevalence of the coronavirus; and outdated restrictions that the Michigan Legislature places on the clerks of our state.
While we’re grateful for the Legislature’s current reforms allowing for an additional day to start processing absent voter ballots before this election, it’s important that Michigan eventually work to be more in line with thirty-six other states that allow for some form of absent voter ballot pre-processing.
Processing an absent voter ballot is far more time-intensive than recording an in-person vote. After comparing the signature on the return envelope to the voter’s signature on record, clerks then contact voters if necessary to confirm that a signature is theirs.
Then, we must open the outer mailing envelope, then the inner secrecy sleeve, and take out, unfold, sort, and flatten the ballot found inside while removing the ballot stub.
Only at that point can we begin to scan the ballots, often limited by machines that can process only three or four ballots per minute. At each of these stages, important verification and safeguard processes improve the security and reliability of our system, but add still more to the workload.
The data and results from the August primary election showed the time demands of processing absent voter ballots stretched many of Michigan’s clerks too thin.
Some of our jurisdictions were not able to finish counting absent voter ballots and submit results until well after midnight — or even into Wednesday morning.
Mandating this state of affairs through statutory restrictions is not just cruel to the workers who dedicate their time to our most sacred democratic process — it is a threat to the public’s faith in the security and accuracy of our elections.
Reports of fatigued poll workers working 18 straight hours or more at an absent voter counting board or precinct will not promote the public’s trust in our election process.
This November promises to be even more extreme. The challenges clerks faced this August occurred with 1.6 million absent voter ballots. Recent projections estimate that in November we will see double that number — well over 3 million absent voter ballots .
Michigan is currently an outlier in blocking its clerks from pre-processing absent voter ballots before Election Day. Thirty-six out of 50 states lack the restriction found in Michigan law.
Florida, whose handling of absentee ballots has been praised by everyone from President Donald Trump to the leader of Florida’s Democratic Party, allows local election officials to start processing absentee ballots 22 days before Election Day. Nearby Minnesota allows ballot envelopes to be opened seven days before Election Day.
We are not asking to count and tally ballots before Election Day, simply to be allowed to complete the time-intensive steps before counting, like opening envelopes and sorting ballots.
Legislative reform allowing clerks to take the time they need is an essential precondition for our elections to be as safe, secure and reliable as all of us want.
While the reforms passed by the Senate and the House are a step in the right direction, further action is needed to give overwhelmed jurisdictions the ability to conduct the election in the most safe and secure manner possible.
More than one extra day is needed to count the increased amount of absentee ballots — and giving clerks the time they need is not a partisan issue.
It should not be a controversial proposition, just a matter of common sense.
Jan Roncelli, Bloomfield Township clerk
Tina Barton, Rochester Hills city clerk
Justin Roebuck, Ottawa County clerk/register of deeds
Ute O’Connor, Grosse Ile Township clerk
Susan Nash, Livonia city clerk
Article originally appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business.