In previous election cycles, results have been reported on election night as precincts tally their votes, with a winner being declared hours after polls close. This year, however, a final result may not be available for days or weeks after the election. With concerns around the safety of in-person voting, a record number of voters are using absentee ballots. The restrictions on when and how election officials count absentee ballots, as well as an expected increase in voter turnout for the particularly contentious election, make it unclear how long voters will wait for a result.
This will be a particularly important factor in Michigan, a key state in the 2020 election, which had the smallest margin of victory in the 2016 election and had record turnout in the August primary.
Michigan’s ballot-counting plan
In 2018, Michigan legislators passed a no-excuse absentee voting law, meaning anyone can request an absentee ballot without providing their reasoning, likely resulting in an increase in the number of absentee ballots. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson also mailed applications for mail-in ballots to every registered voter using funding provided by the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The goal is to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, ensuring “no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote.”
In recent weeks, the rate of spread of COVID-19 has increased in Michigan. In an Oct. 21 press conference, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the COVID-19 situation in Michigan is getting worse and that she was “sounding the alarm.”
“I’m just going to be frank: our numbers are not good,” Whitmer said. “They’re moving in the wrong direction.”
In the August primary, more absentee voter ballots were cast than in any other Michigan election. Out of the 2.5 million total votes cast in Michigan, 1.6 million of those were from absentee ballots. The previous record for absentee ballots was 1.3 million in the 2016 presidential election. Benson has said she expects at least 2.4 million people to vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election.
The rules for handling these absentee ballots, however, may result in vote counting delays. Clerks cannot begin opening and counting ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day, the same time the in-person polling locations open. With so many votes being cast by mail, this will likely take longer than in previous years.
Not only will more absentee ballots be cast, but more votes will likely be cast overall. The 2.5 million votes in the August election was a record for primary election votes, and election officials said they believe approximately 5 million Michigan voters are expected to participate in the general election.
Benson has discussed the likely delays on Election Day, explaining in an NBC interview there will likely not be full results on election night.
“We should be prepared for this to be closer to an election week as opposed to an Election Day,” said Benson. “The bottom line is that we are not going to have the full results and accounting of all of our ballots on election night. We already know that. We’ve asked the legislature to make changes to the law to give us more ability to be prepared and count those ballots more efficiently — they have not acted, for reasons I don’t fully, completely understand.”
She also discussed the steps election officials are taking to count voters more quickly and efficiently, while stressing the importance of accurate reporting.
“We’re increasing tabulators, we’re increasing capacity to more efficiently and securely count those ballots — but I’m also laser focused on accuracy,” said Benson. “If it takes a few extra days to make sure we have a full and accurate counting of the results of every race, that’s what it’s going to take. We’re going to be transparent throughout that whole process to make sure every citizen knows exactly where we are in the counting process and how many more ballots we have to get through.”
Washtenaw County Clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum said he believes many election offices, and certainly those in Washtenaw County, are equipped to quickly count ballots and provide results. He also acknowledges some Michigan cities, such as Detroit and Flint, will likely have a harder time providing results quickly, as they have opted not to pre-process ballots.
“So, there’s been a lot of thought put into these things and we’ve made a lot of progress,” Kestenbaum said. “I’m very confident that it should go smoothly, at least in Washtenaw County. Contrary to some of the rumors that are going around, there’s not going to be a delay in counting absentee ballots. Absentee ballots will be counted on Election Day at the same time as other ballots and they’ll be reported on election night the same as other … precincts.”
Kestenbaum said he does not agree with claims in the media about Michigan being one of the last states to report.. He believes the results will be in by the next morning. In other elections, such as the March primary, results were reported before 10 p.m., only hours after polls closed.
Concerns circling around mail-in ballots
Some are concerned about an increase in voter fraud in this election cycle, particularly resulting from the increase in absentee voting.. Others are concerned ballots will be invalidated because of strict laws surrounding how mail-in ballots are placed in the envelope and signed.
Nick Schuler, vice chair of College Republicans at the University of Michigan and LSA sophomore, discussed how he thinks in-person voting can be made safer and how mail-in voting can still happen, while reducing the risk of voter fraud.
“I think we should do voting as usual, but obviously with increased sanitary measures at the polling places, …,” Schuler said. “But should someone not feel comfortable voting in person, despite those measures, I think they should be able to request a mail-in ballot like you can every other election … I don’t see the need to just automatically send (applications) to everyone when you can request one like normal (which would be) way less prone to fraud because you have to go through that process.”
Regina Egan, LSA and STAMPS junior and communications director of College Democrats, wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily she believes mail-in voting is especially important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While she is not concerned about voter fraud, she is apprehensive about results being challenged and the focus of scrutiny centering on mail-in ballots.
“All Americans deserve to be able to vote freely and safely,” Egan wrote. “In the middle of a pandemic, the ability to vote absentee or by mail is even more crucial in preserving American democracy and protecting American lives. I absolutely trust the mail-in voting system to be safe from things like voter fraud. What I am worried about is the fact that the large number of mail-in ballots is so unprecedented, which means that if the election is narrow enough, then those mail-in ballots will be highly contested in a long drawn-out, polarizing and partisan way.”
In the August primary, 10,600 ballots were rejected. 2,225 were rejected because the envelopes were not signed or the signature of the voter did not match that which the election office had on file.
Because of Michigan’s importance in the election, these rejected ballots have become a concern for many voters. Trump won Michigan with only 10,704 votes in 2016, almost the same number of ballots that were rejected in Michigan’s August primary.
Kestenbaum tried to alleviate concerns about signature laws, explaining the ballots rejected as a result are a small proportion of ballots received. He also said clerks will try and contact voters to rectify problems with their ballots.
“In Michigan, if it’s your signature and your handwriting, it’s not gonna be thrown out for being different,” Kestenbaum said. “The proportion of signatures and absentee ballots that fail signature matching is tiny. Historically, you know, it’s not a large percentage, by any means. The most common problem with the ballot is if someone forgets to sign it, the outside envelope. And the rules now are that if there’s time before the election, the clerk will contact the voter to have them know that they can come in and sign it or do something to remedy the problem.”
Anxieties regarding the United States Postal Service
Many voters and elected officials have also expressed doubts about the United States Postal Service, both in their ability to deliver ballots on time and to handle the sensitive nature of mail-in ballots.
In the August primary, 6,400 of the 10,600 ballots rejected were received after election day, and therefore could not be counted. USPS told Michigan and 44 other states in August they cannot guarantee mail-in ballots would arrive on time to be counted in the November election.
These issues have largely arisen over the past few months, as the amount of mail and packages has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump also appointed Louis DeJoy, a vocal Republican donor and Trump supporter, as Postmaster General in May of 2020, after the pandemic had already complicated voters’ ability to cast votes in person.
DeJoy has made many changes to the agency, including limiting overtime hours, removing about 15% of high speed processing machines, reshuffling top leadership and implementing restrictions on transportation, all of which seem to be increasing delivery times. Eleven high speed delivery bar code sorters were removed from Detroit, a city many believe will have difficulty processing ballots on election day.
Benson has discussed the steps Michigan is taking to ensure mail in ballots are received on time and the controversy surrounding USPS, including constant communication with postmaster leaders and creating drop boxes.
“But we’re now also facing a perception issue — that the changes in the postal service, if nothing else, have created confusion and chaos where none existed prior,” Benson said.
Despite an initial court ruling that would have allowed Michigan ballots postmarked by Election Day that arrived up to 14 days after to be counted, the ruling was overturned by an appeals court earlier this month, reinstating the 8 p.m. Election Day deadline.
Kestenbaum said more absentee ballots have been returned earlier this year, possibly eliminating some concerns that large proportions of ballots would not arrive on time. He also suggested those who have not returned a mail-in ballot yet to drop it off at a city or county clerk’s office.
Many Republican politicians believe the increase in mail-in ballots through USPS will result in an increase in voter fraud, as Trump has often claimed.
Kestenbaum explained clerk’s offices have procedures set up to ensure no ballot tampering occurs and have multiple people working together on sensitive tasks.
“We have a very good record in Michigan of administering elections in a completely clean and fair way,” Kestenbaum said. “Poll workers, by the way, have to identify their parties so you have two poll workers of different parties doing every sensitive task. So if it involves handling ballots, you have a Republican and a Democratic coworker together, doing whatever needs to be done with the ballots.”
Schuler referred to a case in New Jersey where a USPS worker was arrested for allegedly dumping mail, including election ballots. But most experts say when problems arise with mail-in voting, they do not give either party an advantage and do not lead to a false election outcome.
“I have all the respect in the world for the postal service, but I don't think a simple postal worker should be in charge of delivering 200,000 ballots that could swing a state and then swing the election,” Schuler said.
Kestenbaum disagrees with the concerns about USPS handling ballots, saying poll workers will handle ballots correctly.
“Postal workers are busy and they’re dealing with a tremendous quantity of mail all the time,” Kestenbaum said. “And the idea that they would single out a piece of mail, out of the thousands of pieces that they’re dealing with at any given point and say, ‘aha, this is someone from the wrong party, so I need to get rid of their ballot.’ — they don’t have time for that. … So I think the American postal service is trustworthy.”
When asked how he expects election results to unfold and how Trump will react, Schuler said he thinks the president will respect the election outcome, but that the way it is decided will certainly be interesting.
“I think that the president will respect the outcome of the election,” Schuler said. “But again, that being said, this election is going to be interesting. Who knows what’s gonna happen, when the results are coming. You know, we could have a Gore-Bush scenario where the Supreme Court has a lot of sway, so we’ll see.”
Egan also mentioned the drawn-out 2000 election between former Vice President Al Gore and former President George W. Bush, explaining she thinks a clear result would help reassure people the government is still functioning correctly.
“Concerns about US electoral processes go back even before 2016 to 2000 with Gore and Bush,” Egan wrote. “I believe Americans want fast and clear results after election night because it proves that American democracy is safe and working, and the 2000 presidential election was anything but that. If a large number of ballots is invalidated for technicalities, then this points to some part of our electoral process that is not working because American votes are not getting counted.”
Daily Staff Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.