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Voting in Michigan: the State of Play

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It is the home stretch of a confounding election year. Election officials have devised out of the box solutions time and again to problems they could not have foreseen in March. Michigan’s election officials showed great versatility to adapt to less than ideal circumstances. As a Senior Advisor to Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, I am involved in the planning process to timely distribute and tabulate 200,000 mail ballots.

In mid-March when the COVID-19 nation-wide lockdown began, election officials across the country began gaming out scenarios that defaulted heavily to mail ballots. The theory was simple: If we all needed to be physically distant, a convenience option with minimal person to person touch points could be best.

BPC issued a report in mid-May projecting that more than 50% of the votes in November would be cast by mail. This projection about mail ballots has held up as rates of mail-in voting surged during the Michigan’s August primary with 1.6 million Michigan voters cast mail ballots, 300,000 more than the 2016 presidential election. Detroit voters exceeded previous number of mail ballots of 57,000 in 2008 by casting more than 81,000 mail ballots in August.

In advance of the primary, the Detroit City Clerk sent mail ballot applications to all the city’s voters resulting in over 100,000 applications being returned. The applications were ‘dual applications’ allowing voters to request a ballot for the primary and a ballot the general election on a single application. The mailing of applications by the city this year has the benefit of not only putting an application in the voters’ hands, but also by using a barcode on the application allowing faster processing when the application is returned. The dual applications have assisted the city clerk in processing and mailing over 100,000 ballots immediately after receiving printed ballots on September 24. By frontloading the application process, we will avoid an overwhelming volume of applications in the last half of October.

In Michigan there are no prohibitions on political parties or other groups distributing mail applications to voters. Until this year, voters were responsible for either requesting an application from a municipal clerk or using an application mailed by a third party. As the third-party applications are beginning to be submitted, the clerk is seeing a 10 – 15% duplication rate.

Normally, the city clerk has seven satellite offices where voters may register to vote, apply for a mail ballot and return their voted ballot. This year, there are 23 satellite offices, which opened for business on October 5 and are located in city park and recreational buildings. The satellites are open seven days a week with reduced hours on Saturday and Sunday. The satellites are staffed by furloughed city employees who began their training on September 8 and, as part of their training, assisted in processing mail ballots for voters who submitted dual applications before the primary.

Each satellite office also has a secure drop box in addition to seven other sites where drop boxes are located. The drop boxes have security cameras, are cemented in the ground and have pilons protecting them. Satellite office staff empty the boxes several times a day and will be present at 8 p.m. on Election Day to collect ballots and secure the boxes so no additional ballots are deposited.

An extensive voter education campaign is underway to direct voters to the satellite sites, especially for returning voted ballots. As with other central cities, there are systemic issues with mail delivery that can be avoided by using drop boxes.

In addition, all of Detroit’s 501 precincts will be open on Election Day. Michigan election law does not allow consolidation of precincts in a presidential election. Given the expected 65 – 70% mail ballot turnout, polling places will have far fewer voters than a normal presidential election. Nearly all Detroit precincts have fewer the 1,000 voters, meaning the expected turnout in a precinct with 1,000 voters will be around 300 voters – a 70% turnout (700 voters) split between 65% mail ballot voters (455 voters) and 35% in-person voters (245 voters).

Detroit is making voting as convenient and safe as possible during the pandemic by offering increased access through satellite sites for casting a mail ballot before election day. The polling places will provide safe, socially distanced voting environments with a much lower number of voters with few, if any, lines.