Light traffic at the polls, as 1.6M cast absentee ballots during pandemic

Elections staff are receiving ballots from drivers, allowing voters to walk-in and submit their ballots at City of Detroit Election Commission headquarters, Aug. 3, 2020 | Ken Coleman

Polling places around Michigan were much quieter this year for the primary elections on Tuesday than in past years, but not because people aren’t voting. 

There was a significant increase of mail-in ballots this year, due to health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic and Proposal 3, which passed in 2018 and allows for any reason absentee ballots and same-day registration.

Derek Grigsby of Detroit participated in the Detroit Will Breathe rally and march on Tuesday evening. It is something that he has done for much of the last two months following the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis on May 25. Grigsby decided to vote by mail prior to Election Day.

“In Detroit, the polling places are ridiculous,” said Grigsby, a former city of Detroit employee, of prior elections that often feature long lines. “You have all these people waiting to vote. It’s designed for us not to vote.”

Derek Grigsby of Detroit participated in the Detroit Will Breathe rally and march on Tuesday. He voted by mail prior to Primary Election Day.

As of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, about 2.07 million absentee ballots have been requested and 1.6 million people have returned their ballots. 

Also, more than 3,600 people have taken advantage of same-day voter registration. 

During the 2016 primary election during a presidential year, just about 500,000 people voted absentee. Prior to Tuesday’s election, the state’s record for number of voters mailing in ballots was during the November 2016 general election when 1.27 million people voted absentee.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson during Primary Election Night press conference on Aug. 4, 2020 in Detroit.

“There’s a lot of unknowns [that] come into play because of the pandemic and so many other changes right now,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson during an 11 a.m. press conference outside her own voting site, Louis Pasteur Elementary School in Northwest Detroit. “And I think the proof is in the pudding today. You see a lot of people voting by mail, very few crowds at election places like this and across the board people are reporting that they’ve had smooth experiences like this.” 

With the surge of absentee ballots, Benson spokesman Jake Rollow said it’s unclear when there will be an official count of votes. 

At 7 p.m., Rollow said Oakland County was caught up with all absentee ballots that were submitted prior to Tuesday morning, and Dearborn expects to be counting absentee ballots through midnight.

Rollow said Election Day had been going smoothly as of midday Tuesday with no reports of long wait times or lines, but some locations were reporting some workers didn’t show up.

One polling location, Northwest Unity Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, opened up two hours late Tuesday morning, around 9 a.m., due to a shortage of workers. Benson said that she sent some of her staff to the church to assist. 

In-person turnout during the first half of the day was light in Detroit, even by traditional primary election standards. Most of the city’s highest volume sites experienced fewer voters than usual, given the opportunity to vote by mail.

Jocelyn Jackson of Detroit voted in person at Chrysler Elementary School on Aug. 4, 2020 | Ken Coleman

Jocelyn Jackson of Detroit, a voter since 2008, decided to vote in-person at Chrysler Elementary School located just outside of downtown for “peace of mind.” She was the 90th person to visit the site when she arrived at 1:45 p.m.

“Just for the accuracy,” Jackson said about going to the polls. “Knowing that I cast that vote and knowing it will be counted.”

Ken Scott of Detroit also told the Advance that he chose to vote in-person because he wants to make sure that his “vote counts.”

“To be sure that I see it being counted. I also enjoy the process of being here,” Scott said outside of Louis Pasteur Elementary School. “I really enjoy seeing the process and seeing other people out here. Hopefully, there are more coming.”

Peter Williams, a Detroit voter at Louis Pasteur Elementary School, Primary Election Day, Aug. 4, 2020 | Ken Coleman

Peter Williams of Detroit’s Green Acres community located on the city’s Northwest side said he always votes. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, he wanted to cast his ballot in person.

“I’m safe and I like the idea of going to the polls,” Williams said. “Always have.”

Election worker shortage

Early on Tuesday morning, the state deployed a number of election workers to areas around the state that were short-staffed, including Detroit, Flint, Commerce Township, Benzie County, Lake County and Jackson County. At the start of the day, 35 workers were sent to Detroit to fill gaps where workers didn’t show up. 

This year the state has recruited over 6,500 people to help work in polling places. 

“The goal was to make sure that clerks would have election workers. They  started expressing nervousness about this when the pandemic set in,” Rollow said. “That is a new role for the state. This is not something we’ve done previously in my knowledge.”

Rollow said the shortage of election workers is partially due to the amount of labor it takes to count absentee ballots and also a number of workers not showing up on the day of the election.

During periods of the day, Detroit Primary Election sites on Aug. 4 had more campaign workers than in-person voters. Louis Pasteur Elementary was an example. Aug. 4, 2020 | Ken Coleman

“We have fewer election workers able to serve because traditionally so many election workers are older, and therefore more susceptible to the virus,” Rollow said. “Second, the fact that you have so many AV [absentee voter] ballots while you still are opening all your polls just means you need that many more people, and so you need additional election workers. And then third is the fact that you have to count all those AV ballots today means that you can’t use fewer workers and spread it out over a series of days or weeks.”

Benson, along with local clerks and some Democratic lawmakers, has been pushing for the Legislature to allow absentee ballots to be processed before Election Day to avoid delayed results. 

“I think everybody knows we’ve asked the legislature to extend the amount of time we have to process and we’re hoping that happens before November,” Rollow said. 

Benson said she is hopeful the Legislature will “support our clerks and staff.”

“We’ve been calling for simply more time to handle what could be three times as many ballots sent through the mail this November than ever before,” Benson said. “We have worked to provide extra machines and high-speed letter openers and all the like, and I want more envelope openers to make the process more efficient, but we also need more time.”

Election officials beg Legislature for help with surge in absentee voting 

During her press availability on Tuesday evening in Detroit, Benson called on the federal government, including President Donald Trump, to help speed up the process of ballot-counting.

She called for about $15 million in federal government assistance to help her agency to ensure that all voter-related mail is processed efficiently and effectively and “fill gaps” related to poll workers and their training.

There is “uncertainty” regarding the U.S. mail system, Benson said at the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center.

“We know that we have a problem: The U.S. Postal Service is processing mail too slowly and there is a lot of backlog. That’s our problem. At the same time, more people want to vote by mail than ever before. That’s the challenge. The solution is clear: Fully fund the post office and ensure that there is enough staff to address the mail backlog and move efficiently and securely through the process. It’s not rocket science.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.
Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.