Genesee County clerks report record absentee ballot numbers

GENESEE COUNTY — Clerks in several Genesee County communities reported huge increases in absentee ballot submissions during the Aug. 4 primary election.

Around 2.5 million Michiganders voted in last Tuesday’s election, surpassing the state’s record of 2.2 million votes in the 2018 Primary Election. Of that total, more than 1.6 million absentee ballots were submitted, shattering a previous record of 1.3 million that was set in the 2016 Presidential Election.

While the influx of absentee ballots reflected high voter participation, it also led to slight delays and busy nights for clerks and election workers in many municipalities

Flint Township Clerk Kathy Funk said that her office sent out a total of 6,680 absentee ballots and received 5,480. This indicated a major increase from 2016, when 1,788 ballots were issued in Flint Township and 1,631 were returned.

To keep ahead of the absentee influx, Funk directed her counting boards to start tabulating absentee ballots at 7:30 a.m. on Election Day. She said that the last ballot was counted around 11:30 p.m., and paperwork was finally completed at about 12:40 a.m.

Funk said that she anticipates 14,000 absentee ballots for the November election, which is why she’s planning to utilize four absentee counting boards in November and sending absentee ballot applications out ahead of time.

“We will be sending out absentee ballot applications to those on our permanent list by Aug. 20,” she said. “Those who filled out the dual application mass mailed by the Secretary of State and requested a ballot for the Presidential Election will automatically receive a ballot once we have received them and fully tested the integrity of the ballots and the tabulator software.”

Burton City Clerk Racheal Ervin- Boggs said that she received 4,085 absentee ballots on Aug. 4—a considerable increase from 1,206 absentee ballots her office processed in August 2018.

“We had almost quadruple the number of ballots than what we are accustomed to, and the tabulators can only accept one ballot at a time,” she said. “No matter how fast we work, we are at the mercy of the machine’s tabulation speed.

“In addition, by law, voters can drop ballots off all the way up to 8 p.m. on election night,” she added. “With the large volume, the (counting boards) were processing ballots well after the close of polls, which delayed the reporting of results.”

Boggs said that COVID-19 safety measures further complicated the absentee counting process because her team members couldn’t work in close proximity to each other. She said that two absentee counting boards and two more tabulating machines will be added for the November election to speed up absentee processing efforts.

Boggs is also hoping that the state legislature will make two key changes to aid the absentee counting process: namely, by allowing election workers to process absentee ballots before polls open and overturning state law that allows ballots to arrive at clerks’ offices until 8 p.m. on election night.

Flushing Township Clerk Wendy Meinburg said that she processed 1,935 absentee ballots—a huge increase from the 500 or so ballots the township usually receives for an August primary. Overall, absentee ballots accounted for 64 percent of votes in Flushing Township.

Meinburg said that the ballot counting process went smoothly and that her staff didn’t experience any delays despite the uptick in votes. Ahead of the November election, she’s advising voters to deliver absentee ballots to the township drop box and register for an application in-person rather than registering online through the state’s absentee voter application system. She said this will make it easier for her staff to process absentee ballots and for voters to get their ballots in on time.

In Davison Township, Clerk Cindy Shields said that her staff received 3,418 absentee ballots, which is triple the amount they usually get for a primary. She said that around 200 absentee ballots arrived on Election Day alone, with some coming through the mail and others getting dropped off at the township office.

“People should be getting ballots in long before Election Day because it takes them longer to come in and vote absentee than it does to go into the precincts,” Shields said. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved, and it takes longer for us to get those ballots checked in and passed on to the counting boards.”

Shields also said that the state should consider fixing or forgoing its online absentee application system, which allows people to submit photos of their absentee ballot applications.

“Many online applications were hard to read and distorted, so we had to make a lot of phone calls and email people to try to clarify information,” she said. “We believe that we’ve lost our check and balances for identifying voters when they are allowed to apply online.”

Despite the high number of absentee ballots, most municipalities and townships were able to report all their ballots on election night. However, several county-wide and regional races weren’t officially called until the following afternoon.