There have been many news stories and social media conversations recently about absentee ballots vs. voting in person. I wanted to share some thoughts on how we administer elections here in East Grand Rapids and our efforts to make sure that every vote counts so you can decide between in-person and absentee voting come November.
First, it is important to understand the difference between “absentee ballots” and “mail-in voting.” Mail-in voting typically occurs when every registered voter is mailed a ballot — whether or not they ask for it — and the voter mails it back to the election official after filling it out. In this case, there are no in-person precincts open on election day; everything is done by mail. Colorado and Oregon have been using mail-in voting for many years. While I’m not familiar with the procedures and safeguards these states use, many argue this system may allow someone to fraudulently obtain or vote someone else’s ballot. Many of the news stories seem to focus on this potential when hundreds of unsolicited ballots are mailed to people who didn’t request them or may have moved or passed away
Michigan Election Law allows for absentee voting, which means that registered voters fill out an application form requesting their ballot prior to election day. Anyone may apply for an absentee ballot without a specific reason. Voters can pick the absentee ballot up from their local clerk’s office or ask that the ballot be mailed to their home or a temporary address. When an application for an absentee ballot is received, election staff reviews the signature on the application with the signature on file in the state’s Qualified Voter File (QVF) database held by the Secretary of State’s office. Most of the time, the signature matches what we have on file, and we send the ballot out to the voter. If the signature doesn’t match what we have on file, we contact the voter to make arrangements for them to come in to verify their identity and sign a new signature card for the current and future elections. It’s very helpful if voters fill in the phone number or email address fields on the application form so we can contact you quickly.
When an absentee ballot is returned to our office, we perform a second signature check between the sealed envelope and the signature on file. Again, if the signature does not match, we contact the voter to determine why and to clear up the situation. The most common reason the signature doesn’t match is a spouse signing the envelope or a parent signing for a child away at school. We cannot accept anyone else’s signature on the ballot envelope, and we make every effort to allow people to come in and correct these situations prior to election day. We typically only see 8-10 of these situations per election and we’re able to resolve almost all before election day.
Our office has noticed some delays in postal service delivery several times over the last ten years and always recommend people return their ballots to us in person or to allow at least a week for the ballot to reach us by mail — longer if mailing from out of state. Our local post office staff has always been in contact with us about working out any issues they notice and have made extra efforts to get ballots back and forth to voters as quickly as possible. On Aug. 4, staff from Station C in Eastown made two extra trips to city hall with ballots they retrieved from drop boxes and private mailboxes after our regular mail delivery. Remember that ballots must be received by our office by the close of polls on election day — ballots that come in the mail after election day cannot be counted.
The city provides a secure drop box located just inside the main entrance to the community center that is available 24-hours every day to drop off your ballots and other materials for staff members. If you come during office hours, feel free to walk inside and hand your ballot to a staff member at the front desk.
Once ballots are returned to our office and the signature is verified, they are kept sealed in their envelopes and secured until election day. We regularly balance the number of envelopes received with the computer database to ensure all the returned ballots have been checked in and stored properly.
On election day, teams of election inspectors open the absentee ballot envelopes and feed the ballots into a tabulating machine identical to the ones used in the precincts. Many procedures and safeguards are in place to make sure ballots are kept confidential and processed correctly. The absentee ballot counting board members even work past the 8 p.m. closing time to process ballots that are received at the last minute prior to the deadline.
Because there are so many steps involved in processing absentee ballots, staff spends 5-7 minutes on each outgoing ballot and 3-5 minutes on each incoming ballot. This can mean a serious bottleneck if hundreds of ballots are received on election day, causing results to be delayed well past the 8 p.m. closing time. (On Aug. 4, we received 438 absentee ballots either in the mail or dropped off to our offices.) If possible, please return your ballot to City Hall or mail it in as soon as you are finished voting. Our staff fully supports absentee balloting and we work hard to make sure everything goes smoothly. You can help by returning your ballot as soon as possible — ideally the week prior to the election.
If you request and receive an absentee ballot, please complete the process by voting and returning the ballot. In August, over 600 ballots were not returned. While you legally can still go to the polls to vote if you don’t turn in your absentee ballot, workers are required to make sure that ballot has not been returned, so this can delay your in-person voting time. Not returning ballots could also cause ballot shortages on election day since we only order one ballot per person for expected turnout. If you want to vote absentee, we certainly encourage you to do so. It is easy and convenient and allows you to research candidates and proposals prior to the election.
On a related note, I encourage you to make sure your voter registration is up to date prior to election Day. Whether you have moved since the last election or you’ve never registered before, we can help you get ready for election Day. Michigan law allows election Day registration, but there can be lines and you need to provide identification and proof of residency. You can save time and potential frustration by registering ahead of time. Call, stop by our offices or visit www.michigan.gov/vote for online options.
If you have questions about the safety of your ballot, fraud prevention efforts, processing procedures or other questions, our staff would be happy to talk with you. You can call our offices at 616.949.2110 or stop by Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and ask your questions in person. If you are interested in even more behind-the-scenes information, volunteer to be an election inspector. We are always hiring new workers to help in the precinct and the absentee ballot counting board.
I can assure you that our staff and workers are committed to making sure everyone has the opportunity to vote. Whether you vote using an absentee ballot or go in person to the precinct on election day, our workers follow state procedures to make sure every voter is accommodated.