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With absentee voting way up (as expected), Oakland Co. clerks are unfazed

Voting sign and Rochester Hills sign together
Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton says she has a little less than 10 thousand absentee ballots to count, and voting turnout in-person at precinct polling locations has been "steady"

Requests for absentee ballots ahead of Michigan’s Presidential Primary Tuesday nearly doubled across the state when compared to the 2016 primary.

This is the first statewide election since Michigan adopted new laws allowing residents to vote absentee for any reason, and to register to vote even on Election Day.

The increase in absentee voting is a test for township and city clerks charged with administering elections in Michigan’s 83 counties. And it makes it harder for clerks to judge voter turnout while the polls are open, because it’s hard to tell whether absentee ballots are being requested by new voters, habitual voters opting for the convenience of voting absentee, or some mixture of both.

“We weren’t quite certain of what we should look at,” said Rochester Hills City Clerk Tina Barton. “We had a very high absentee turnout. And that could reflect that we would have a high turnout in the precincts, or it could mean … we have a low turnout in the precincts.”

As of Early Tuesday afternoon, Barton said most voting precincts were seeing a “steady” stream of voters coming to their polling places.

36,574 people who asked to vote absentee in Tuesday’s primary spoiled their absentee ballot to change their vote according to the Michigan Secretary of State’s office, presumably after their preferred Presidential candidate dropped out of the race.

Even with the increase in absentee ballots, Oakland County Elections Director Joe Rozell said the local clerks in his county are prepared for the extra workload. He doesn’t expect any issue with processing spoiled ballots either.  

“They’re allowed to start (counting absentee ballots) at 7 a.m. when the polls open, and many clerks brought their folks in very early in the day to get started in that process,” said Rozell.

There are concerns it could take longer for clerks to report official election results because of the increase in absentee ballots, especially in November’s general election, when the number of absentee voters is nearly guaranteed to be significantly higher even than the numbers seen in Tuesday’s primary. Barton says she’s treating the primary election as a practice-run so her elections staff and volunteers can be prepared for November.

“We actually have staffed our absentee room as if this were the Presidential election because we wanted to bring everybody in and let them train,” Barton said. “I wanted them to have this experience of having a high volume (of absentee ballots) and processing them.”

Barton says there were no unexpected issues as of early Tuesday afternoon. She says her office has about 9,800 absentee ballots to count.   

In Oakland County (which includes Rochester Hills), 168,892 people requested absentee ballots for Tuesday’s Presidential Primary. More than double the amount requested before the 2016 Primary. Statewide, 970,290 people requested absentee ballots for the 2020 Presidential primary, compared to 496,054 in the 2016 primary, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office.

To register to vote on election day, residents must register at their local clerks office -- not their polling place. And they must present proof of residency.  

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