Clerks predict light traffic at the polls Aug. 4

Absentee ballots keeping municipal offices busy before primary

GENESEE COUNTY — Clerks across Genesee County are seeing requests for absentee ballots for the Aug. 4 primary double and even triple over prior years.

With the Secretary of State sending out absentee ballot applications to 7.7 million Michigan voters in May, clerk departments have been busy mailing out ballots and processing those that have been returned.

For Wendy Meinburg, Flushing Township Clerk, she said her office has received 2,211 ballot applications.

“Between the state mailing and the ballots that we sent out to our permanent absentee list, there have been over 8,900 ballot applications sent to registered voters in the township,” she said. “About 25 percent of the township population has received a ballot so far. There are still over 6,000 applications out there.

“That’s a lot more than we normally we receive. We usually have about 500 absentee voters for this election.”

Flushing City Clerk Michelle King said as of July 16, the city had received 2,024 AV Ballot requests and had issued them. To put this into perspective, in 2016 for the November Presidential Primary, Flushing had 71 percent total voter turnout and issued 1,581 absent voter ballots.

“Requests have started to slow down, but we are still receiving 15-20 per day right now,” said King. “I expect we will likely receive between 200 and 400 more applications for ballots before the election.”

Flint Township Clerk Kathy Funk said her office has issued and mailed 6,116 ballots as of July 14. Of that, 1,380 ballots have been returned.

To contrast this with 2016, 1,788 ballots were issued and 1,631 were returned. Historically, Flint Township voters have been diligent in returning their ballots for previous elections.

“Usually, we have around a 93 to 95 percent return rate so I would expect that we will receive at least 5,688 ballots back from voters, notwithstanding the increase in ballots we will issue between now and 4 pm on Aug. 3,” said Funk.

“The numbers we are seeing are unprecedented. Part of that is due to ‘No Reason Absentee Voting’ which was enacted following the passage of Proposal 18-3 by voters in November, 2018,” said Funk. “The other piece contributing to the high issuance follows the Secretary of State’s mass mailing of applications to all voters not currently on the permanent absentee list in May of this year.”

She said there are positives and negatives to the mass mailing. The positive is the incredible response which allows everyone to exercise their right to vote whether it be in-person or by absentee voting.

The first negative encountered, however, was the lack of communication from Secretary Jocelyn Benson or the Bureau of Elections prior to the mailing, said Funk.

“We were shut down at the time and working remotely for the most part and all of a sudden we had a huge influx of applications,” she said. “The first weekend after the mailing, we received almost 1,000 applications. Just keeping up with limited staff was the first hurdle. Next was making sure we had enough supplies such as envelopes and secrecy sleeves. And that leads to the biggest negative of all – the budgetary impact. In a year where revenues are down, Election expenses will be way up. Postage, supplies, overtime needed to process the influx of ballots. Couple that with the expenses of running an election during a pandemic and the necessary personal protective equipment needed for both election workers and voters. None of this was anticipated when the budget was approved.”

Clerk Tonya Ketzler of Mundy Township said as of Thursday, July 16: 3,147 absentee ballots had been sent. In comparison, there were 1,280 for the entire election in 2016.

“We have more than doubled our absentee ballots and we have three weeks to go. When people ask me if their ballots are safe, I ask them how many bills they have had lost in the mail. You also can go online to the Secretary of State’s office and see where your ballot is in the process, if we’ve received it … nothing could be safer and you don’t want to stand in line on election day six feet apart.”

As of Tuesday, July 14: 1,118 absentee ballots sent and 266 were returned said Clerk Michael Dowler, of Gaines Township.

“The A/V process is going well with no anticipated concerns at this time.”

Clerk Connie Olger of the City of Swartz Creek said as of Thursday, July 16: 1,226 were sent and 562 were returned.

“The absentee ballot process is going pretty smoothly. Our request for absentee ballots has increased 50 percent to date. It is quite a challenge planning the setup of the polling location due to COVID restrictions. Just like everywhere else, we are following, COVID guidelines, so setup of the polling location will require much more work than usual. We will be using additional space in order to spread out the voters and the workers. Residents should expect a longer wait than normal because of these restrictions.”

According to Katie Vick, clerk for Atlas Township, as of Wednesday, July 15: 1,584 ballots were sent out.

“To put that into perspective, in March, for the presidential primary, we issued 834 total absentee ballots. For the presidential election in 2016, we issued a total of 1,121. Normally, we have just under 1,000 voters on the permanent absentee voter list, so our volume is anticipated to be more than double.

“It’s been a lot of strain on me and my staff to meet the demand, but overall, the process has been going well. We just ask for patience as we are all meandering through this unusual situation together.

“The most important thing I want our voters to know is they MUST vote straight Democrat or straight Republican on this August ballot. If they try to select a Republican for one office and a Democrat for a different office, that will nullify their vote. When voting in person, the tabulator will notify the voter if they have made a mistake and allow the voter an opportunity to spoil their ballot and we can issue them a new one. Anyone knowing they crossed parties on their absentee ballot should contact our office immediately to spoil that ballot and be reissued a new one.

“I also want to make sure our community knows we have a secure drop box under 24-hour surveillance located behind Atlas Township hall. We prefer ballots be dropped off instead of mailed, if possible. Tax payments and other paperwork can also be placed in the drop box.

“Lastly, election day will certainly look different. While we encourage and support absentee voting, we are doing everything we can to ensure anyone voting at a precinct on election day can do so in a safe and orderly manner.”

Clerk Dennis Milem, Clayton Township, said as of Monday, July 13, there were 1,511 returned.

“We sent out six times as many AV ballot applications as we usually do. We had at least a three-fold increase of AV ballots. It’s two and a half weeks out so we’ll get an influx of ballots. We sent out over 5,000 applications.

“The polls will be open Aug. 4. I have no way of knowing what the state is doing about masks. We’re still waiting on directions from the Bureau of Elections, and that may not come until a couple days before the election. I would like people to wear masks if possible. We will be social distancing as much as possible, and that is going to slow up the vote at the precinct; there’s no doubt about it. We used to process a voter every 11 minutes. This time, you could wait up to half an hour depending on the turnout, because we are going to social distance, as much as humanly possible. We are going to make it as safe as possible for the voter. They are going to have to have a little patience and know they are not going to be able to zip in and zip out, depending on the turnout. I just want people to be understanding and know that we are going to keep everybody safe, but it is going to take longer to vote if you come to the precinct. It’s kind of a brave new world that we’re all trying to navigate.”

In Burton, Clerk Rachael Ervin-Boggs said the city has about 5,000 residents on the permanent absentee ballot list and about that many absentee ballots were sent out for the upcoming primary election.

Ervin-Boggs said the split ballot issue facing all Michigan voters has been one of the hardest parts of this election cycle.

“It’s caused a lot of voter confusion, that’s for sure,” she said.

Richfield Township Clerk Teri Webber said her office has sent out 1,600 absentee ballots and, as of July 20, had received approximately 500 back.

She said primary elections are usually not as bad as a November general election, but this year with the absentee ballot increase, she’s seen work in her office triple. Webber said she expects the polls won’t be busy on election day, Aug. 4, but she anticipates a busier than usual Absentee Ballot Counting Board.

“I’ve had no problems with my workers, all of them will be working election day,” she said. “The workers are fine and ready to go, the state sent us supplies likes masks and so forth, for voting at the precincts. We’re ready.”

Davison Township Clerk Cindy Shields said 3,872 absentee ballots were issued and as of July 21, she’d received 1,479 back.

“That’s only 38 percent, so that means lot of ballots have to come back between now and election day,” said Shields. “There’s a lot of record-keeping involved. It’s better if people return their ballots before election day.”

Shields also anticipates lighter than usual turnout at the polls Aug. 4, but a huge increase in absentee ballot counting. She said all her election workers will be furnished masks and will be behind clear plastic barriers to protect them from coronavirus.

She said if you are not registered to vote, please register before election day only because it makes the for a longer process if done on Aug. 4.

Davison City Manager and Interim Clerk Andrea Schroeder said there were 873 absentee ballots sent out and 350 have been returned so far, which is about 40 percent.

“With the pandemic and the option to vote absentee I feel we’ll have light turnout at the polls,” said Schroeder. “That seems to be the feeling across the county.”

In the City of Grand Blanc, Clerk Mary Hopkins said as of July 17, she had sent out 1,768 ballots, and had received back 513.

Clerk Cathy Lane of Grand Blanc Township said her community has 30,000 registered voters and as of July 21, her office had issued 8,640 absentee ballots – of which 2,400 had been returned by Tuesday.

Lane said she is still receiving 100-plus requests daily for absentee ballots. In comparison, for the 2016 primary election, she said total her office issued a total of 2,335 ballots.

“A couple things I’m suggesting…even though voters have until Aug. 4 to return their ballots, they could save the staff time and recording for auditing purposes if they return their ballots sooner,” said Lane. “We’re also encouraging people when returning their ballot to sign envelope. We can’t count the ballot if they haven’t signed the envelope.”

She said her office is trying to contact voters right now who have returned their ballots with unsigned envelopes, so they have a chance to correct the error.

Lane suggested using the tan mailbox in the parking lot of the township offices, next to blue federal mailbox, to get the ballots to the clerk in a much quicker manner. She said the township offices are open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday to pick up and fill out applications, pick up ballots or to return them personally.

On Saturday, Aug. 1, the Grand Blanc Township clerk’s office will be open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. for voters who need to come in and register or they want to turn in their absentee ballot. Lane said anyone with questions can call her at 810-424- 2602.

Polls will be open countywide from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Aug. 4. Voters are encouraged to wear masks, observe markings on the floor for social distancing and be aware there will be shields between workers and public. — Lania Rocha, Gary Gould and Ben Gagnon contributed to this article