A record number of people voted absentee for Tuesday’s statewide primary election, but voting rights advocates say there is still more work to be done to prepare before the November general election.
As of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, more than 1.6 million Michiganders cast absentee ballots, topping the previous state record of 1.27 million in the November 2016 presidential election.
The surge of mail-in ballots this year has been attributed to health concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic and Proposal 3, which passed in 2018 and allows for no-reason absentee ballots and same-day registration.
Officials from a coalition of voting rights advocacy groups said during a press conference Wednesday that the expansion of voting laws has been a good step in the right direction, but there need to be improvements. The coalition is composed of All Voting is Local Michigan, Voters Not Politicians, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan and Detroit Action.
Over 2 million people in Michigan requested absentee ballots for the Tuesday election, but not everyone received theirs or it didn’t get to their mailbox until the last minute.
Gabriela Alcazar, a 23-year-old voter from Detroit, said she decided to apply for an absentee ballot due to the pandemic, but her ballot didn’t come in the mail until the day before the election amid big slowdowns in the U.S. Postal Service.
About a week out from Tuesday, the Secretary of State’s office started recommending that voters use drop boxes at their local clerk’s office rather than sending back in the mail to make sure their votes are counted.
“Not voting was not an option, but I was terrified for a while that I would be forced to go in-person on Election Day,” Alcazar said.
Lucas Carroll, a 20-year-old voter from New Buffalo, said he had requested his absentee ballot months ago and never received it. Instead, he had to vote in-person at his local clerk’s office Monday, something he was hoping to avoid.
“I do worry that other students, other first-time voters, other people who have been traditionally left out of the process, will err on the side of caution and just not vote,” Carroll said.
Clare Allenson, civic engagement director for Michigan League of Conservation Voters, worked at her local precinct on the day of the election and said that stories like Carroll’s were not uncommon on Tuesday.
“I counted … about 10% of the voters coming into my precinct yesterday that needed to sign an affidavit and vote in person even though they had preferred to vote by mail and simply were not given enough time,” Allenson said.
Carroll is concerned he will run into that same problem again with the November election when he goes back to his university and doesn’t have the option to vote in-person instead.
To make the voting process easier for everyone, Allenson said there needs to be more education around voting options and greater recruitment to help on election day.
Part of educating voters is ensuring they know where to vote, she said.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson spokesman Jake Rollow said Tuesday that a number of polling locations at churches, schools and community centers opted out of hosting this year because of concern around COVID-19.
Allenson’s local precinct was one of the polling places that changed locations.
“We needed to check our voters that came in and make sure that they came to the right changed location and in some cases they had not,” she said. “They had not been notified ahead of time in many cases. … We want to ensure that in our next election in November we have better communication ahead of time so that people can plan and vote in a timely fashion.”
Sharon Dolente, a voting rights strategist with the ACLU of Michigan, helped create Proposal 3. She warns that Michigan could see double the amount of absentee ballots received for Tuesday’s primary during the November general election.
“So election officials have to plan now to significantly increase their capacity to handle twice as many absentee ballots than they handled in this August primary, and that’s not going to be easy,” Dolente said. “And I think all of us would agree election officials need resources to do what needs to be done to process that level of absentee ballots.”
As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Secretary of State does not have a final count for voter turnout, but Dolente says that’s to be expected. Election officials cannot start to count absentee ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
“I want to remind folks that when you have millions of people voting by absentee ballots, it’s going to take time to count the votes. Just plain and simple. There’s nothing odd. There’s nothing unusual. It’s completely logical that with more individuals voting by absentee, there will have to be time to count all those absentee ballots,” she said. “So prepare yourself … you are not going to have results by 8 p.m. on Election Day. You actually never had official results by 8 p.m. on Election Day.”
Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, pointed out that the Legislature could take action to expedite the ballot counting process.
“We need our state Legislature to do its job to support everyone else in the state who are working as hard as they can to ensure voters can exercise their right to vote during the pandemic,” she said
One way the Legislature can do this, Wang said, is to pass Senate Bill 867, which would allow local clerks to open and prepare absentee ballots before the election, but does not allow for the ballot to be counted ahead of Election Day.
“It’s common sense, nonpartisan and not controversial,” Wang said.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), was introduced in late April and referred to the Senate Election Committee, but has not moved since.
Wang also said the Legislature should pass legislation that would allow for any ballot mailed to the clerk’s office by election day to be counted to ensure that delays in the mailing system do not leave voters out of the voting process.
“The results from the primary show that Michigan voters are excited to exercise their right to vote by absentee for any reason,” Wang said. “Our state Legislature must take the necessary steps to ensure that voting is as easy, accessible and as secure as possible.”