Michigan SOS: Delayed results could stretch Nov. Election Day into ‘election week’

Influx of voters, mail-in ballots expected to delay reporting of General Election results in Michigan

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson made an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday to discuss absentee voting in Michigan ahead of the November General Election.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is expecting General Election results to be delayed for multiple days this November, as the state anticipates its highest voter turnout in history.

Not only are more Michigan residents expected to vote in the 2020 General Election than any other election in the state’s history, but a record number of them are planning to do so by mail -- which has an impact on the rate at which ballots are processed.

Michigan and a number of other states have prioritized mail-in voting, also known as voting absentee, for this year’s elections due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. While absent voter ballots provide a safe alternative to voting in person at the polls on Election Day, the process of counting absent voter ballots can determine how quickly, or not, final election results are announced.

Processing absent voter ballots in Michigan

The process for counting absent voter ballots is different in each state.

In Michigan, election workers are not allowed to begin processing absent voter ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day. Nearly 20 other states allow clerks to count absent voter ballots as they are returned, enabling them to process ballots and report results much earlier than some states.

With an anticipated high voter turnout and influx of Michigan absent voter ballots for the November General Election, Benson says that the state’s election results will not be reported on election night, and may even take days to announce.

“We should be prepared for this to be closer to an election week as opposed to an Election Day,” Benson said during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “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.”

Benson has asked the Michigan Legislature to allow election workers to begin processing ballots the day before Election Day to help streamline the process and report results sooner.

The Michigan Secretary of State has previously mentioned that a delayed reporting of election results can “create a space to enable bad actors to falsely raise questions about the sanctity and security of our elections.” Benson said the state will counter any misinformation with “truth and accuracy,” keeping the public updated throughout the counting process.

Benson has still consistently reiterated the importance of accuracy over speed when it comes to counting ballots, and intends to follow that mantra again in the November election.

“We’re increasing tabulators, we’re increasing capacity to more efficiently and securely count those ballots -- but I’m also laser focused on accuracy,” Benson said Sunday. “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.”

Watch Benson’s full Meet the Press interview in the video player above.

High voter turnout anticipated in Michigan in November

Due to new voting rules established in 2018, all registered Michigan voters now have the option to vote by mail without needing an excuse to do so.

Earlier this year, Benson mailed out absentee voting applications to all registered Michigan voters to make them aware of their voting options ahead of this year’s elections. Voter participation has since increased in the May and August elections, and is expected to increase significantly for the General Election on November 3.

More than 2.5 million Michigan voters participated in the state primary election on August 4, surpassing the state’s previous record of 2.2 million in the Aug. 2018 Primary Election.

Officials say 1.6 million of the 2.5 million votes in August were cast using absent voter ballots -- more than any other election in Michigan history. The previous record for absent voter ballots cast in a Michigan election was 1.3 million in the 2016 Presidential Election.

According to Benson, the state expects at least 2.4 million people will vote by mail in the November election. Of the 7.7 million registered voters in Michigan, about 5 million are expected to participate in the upcoming election, officials said.

“We’ve been able to hone this plan for November through three successful elections that we’ve had already this year -- where we’ve seen, in every single one, turnout has doubled,” Benson said Sunday. “(That puts) us on track to having Michigan’s November election be the highest turnout ever in the history of our state.”

The 2.4 million anticipated absent voters are comprised of people who have either already requested an absent voter ballot for the November election, or are already registered as a permanent absent voter in the state, Benson said. This number has the potential to increase as more people choose to avoid polls amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Postal Service, absentee voting concerns

Recent delays and funding shortages with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have raised concerns over whether or not mail-in ballots will be returned to clerks’ offices on time for the November election -- which is obviously problematic, considering the anticipated influx of absent voter ballots in Michigan and nationwide.

The agency told Michigan and most other states in August that it could not guarantee that mail-in ballots would arrive in time to be counted in the November election. After backlash from citizens and government leaders alike, the agency paused any initiatives that could impact its ability to deliver ballots on time, and has since committed to taking on a supportive role in the General Election.

Still, concerns previously raised have sowed some doubt for U.S. voters who planned to return their absent voter ballots by mail in November. Benson says her office is working to combat this doubt, while also providing alternative options for returning absent voter ballots to ease Michigan voters’ minds.

“I’ve spoken directly with the postmaster general and we’ve been in near constant communicate with out postmaster leaders and postal leaders on the ground here in Michigan,” Benson said Sunday. “We’re approaching this from a two-pronged strategy: One is to make sure the system works, that citizens can receive their ballots and return them on time. We’ve created drop boxes as a workaround for citizens who may not feel comfortable or wait until the last minute to return their ballots.

“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. So the voter education and the confidence-boosting we now have to do, and will do, to ensure voters feel confident that their vote -- if sent through the mail -- will count, is a key part of our work moving forward,” Benson added.

Michigan voters have the option to hand deliver their completed absent voter ballots either directly to their local clerk’s office or using a drop box meant to collect completed ballots. Benson says that the state has placed nearly 1,000 secure drop boxes throughout the state for voters who would prefer to hand deliver their completed ballots, as opposed to returning them by mail.

About 10,000 absent voter ballots were rejected in Michigan’s Primary Election in August. More than 8,600 of those rejections were due to signature verification issues or late arrival.

Polling precincts will still be open for Michigan voters from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Be prepared: 2020 General Election in Michigan: Key dates, deadlines to know

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.