If you follow the news, you are assaulted daily with headlines about threats to the November election’s integrity. Can Michigan voters have confidence their votes will count on November 3?
The short answer is yes.
Michigan’s August primary ran relatively smoothly, especially in comparison to states that have struggled with primaries this year. Michigan’s election process rests on a solid foundation, the hand-marked paper ballot, and has many strengths. During our August 4th primary election, an army of local clerks and poll workers processed a record number of absentee ballots more quickly than expected, and officials learned a lot that can be applied to November.
But we cannot look to the November election with complacency and, given the most recent news about the dismantling of the USPS, we have urgent reasons to be concerned. What have our election officials done to ensure the integrity of the state’s election process and what will they do to address the vulnerabilities that exist?
Let’s consider these questions in light of five risks and consider how Michigan’s election process measures up and what we as citizens and voters can do to mitigate those risks.
1) Inadequate funding.
Although election systems are chronically underfunded around the country, Michigan was one of only four states to fund voting equipment purchases in 2017. In addition, Michigan received $11.2M from the corona virus relief package passed by Congress in May. (MI Secretary of State Benson is asking for $40M for November, but the next relief bill is stalled in Congress.) Much of this was distributed to local governments in the form of ballot drop boxes, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other resources to keep poll workers and polling places safe during the primary.
.2) Effect of the pandemic
The pandemic has affected the traditional pool of poll workers however Michigan has not seen the wholesale closing of polling places that has taken place in many other states. During the primary some districts were short of workers but were able to call on reserves and in other districts the existing teams handled the situation.
Of additional concern are dislocated voters living in temporary housing due to sheltering in place or due to eviction. And with many colleges and universities either closed or focused on virtual learning, the students who normally flood swing state college towns like Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor must register and vote elsewhere or might end up not voting at all. These voters may need assistance with absentee voting or re-registering at their new address.
League member Cheryl Depner is a veteran election worker. She contrasted the March and August primaries, which had similar turnout but in the latter case had to deal with the necessity of following pandemic precautions to keep voters and poll workers safe. “The SOS, county election officials, and local Clerks provided a safe environment for voters and poll workers…It was a long night due to double the turnout of 2016 and the large number of absentee ballots, which take more time to process. It would certainly be helpful for the Michigan legislative body to update election laws. This is urgently needed to process the increase in voting activity due to the 2018 passage of Proposal 3.”
3) Increased voting by mail.
Absentee ballots are not new in Michigan, but now all voters have this option thanks to the approval of Proposal 3 in 2018. For the August primary, more than 2 million ballots were requested and more than 1.6 million were returned. For comparison, 484,094 absentee ballots were cast in Michigan’s 2016 August primary.
The increased mail volume with absentee voting, combined with recent slow-downs in mail delivery are causing concern about timely delivery of mail-in ballots. Voters can avoid problems by allowing extra time when returning their ballots by mail. Or they can return their ballots up to election day directly to their Clerk’s office. To ensure successful absentee voting, we need
- A fully funded USPS;
- More high-speed ballot-counting machines;
- Legislative action to allow absentee ballot counting to begin prior to election day;
- Recruit additional poll workers to count absentee ballots
There is much talk about the risk of fraud inherent in voting by mail. In reality, studies have long shown that the risk is very low. In the view of Sarah Bydalek, the Republican clerk of Walker in Kent County, it’s true the voter lists contain invalid names and need to be pruned. Yet in her 13 years as clerk, she's never seen an instance of fraud, and when asked in this interview with Bridge.Mi if she worries over the inaccurate lists, she stated unequivocally, “No I don’t.”
League member Mary Seelhorst counted August primary absentee ballots in Ypsilanti and said, “I'd never processed absentee ballots before…I was impressed to see that it's truly a methodical process with many points at which ballot tallies must match to ensure an accurate count. We took an oath, we worked in teams, and…we completed our count for the City of Ypsilanti by 9pm--and in fact could have processed more." League member Linda Jeffries processed absentee ballots in Ann Arbor, and said while it went smoothly, she did not leave for home until 12:30 am. “I would emphasize the wisdom of allowing the outer envelopes to be opened prior to election day as we spent the first 30-40 minutes waiting in line to use the machine that opened the envelopes.”
4) Concerns about voting machine security
There has been growing concern for years over voting machine security. In March 2019 Secretary of State Benson established an Election Security Commission which created and began to implement a list of Security Best Practices, including upgraded voting technology and expanded post-election risk-limiting audits (RLAs), which identify statistical anomalies that might indicate inaccurate results.
While updating technology, Michigan has retained hand-marked paper ballots, perhaps the strongest base for any election process. These leave a secure paper trail in case of challenges or problems with equipment. Equally important, they make RLAs possible, a powerful tool in catching discrepancies or irregularity with ballot tabulators. Michigan conducted the largest RLA in the nation for the presidential primary. The results showed we are ready for the November election
Michigan also uses poll books and ballot scanner/tabulators that are not connected to the internet, providing some protection from hacking. City/township/county Clerks offer a public test of tabulator reliability, and on election day the tabulator produces a tape tallying the votes, which the precinct posts for public view after the polls have closed. Alex Halderman, University of Michigan expert on election security, gives Michigan’s equipment and process high marks.
5) Fake news.
In addition to preparing for a tsunami of absentee ballots, we must prepare for a tsunami of misinformation and disinformation. Intelligence services have warned Congress of Russia’s efforts to sway public opinion and sow division through misinformation. Secretary Benson has posted useful links on the SOS’s Election Security In Michigan page on how voters can evaluate news sources.
So, can Michigan voters rely on the integrity of the election on November 3?
High turnout in both in-person and absentee voting will stress the system, but dedicated clerks and their poll workers can rely on a long-established and fundamentally strong election process. (See this University of Michigan report for how local leaders view November.)
What can we do as citizens?
- contact our state representatives, urging them to fully fund the electoral process and also to pass legislation that will enable early counting;
- sign up to become poll workers, a paid position that serves an essential purpose. Anyone in a high risk category can help by making as many people as they can aware that poll workers are needed.
What can we do as voters ?
- If voting in person, we can go to the polls as early as possible on November 3rd and, for safety, be mindful of the Three Ws: Wear a mask; Watch your distance and keep at least 6 feet from others; and Wash your hands frequently
- If voting absentee, we can mail our ballot early to relieve pressure on the USPS or better yet, use the ballot drop boxes at our Clerk’s offices.
- Whether we vote in person or absentee, we can use tools such as Vote411.org and the candidate forum recordings such as LWVAAA produces to inform ourselves about issues and candidates. We can stay well-informed and alert, and follow LWVAAA’s Facebook and Twitter social media feeds for news and to learn what YOU can do.
Have faith in the strength of our system and VOTE!