‘This is great’: Clerks get extra time to prepare absentee ballots

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For the first time, qualifying jurisdictions in Michigan spent the Monday before Election Day pre-processing absentee ballots. 

The 10-hour window for early processing was allowed under Public Act 177, which passed the Legislature in September and was signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month. Under the law, municipalities with more than 25,000 residents can complete security checks that must happen before an absentee ballot is actually counted on Election Day. 

In Grand Rapids, more than 52,000 absentee ballots were returned in time to be included in pre-processing at DeVos Place. The same exhibit hall will be used to tabulate absentee ballots for the city Tuesday. 

“This is great, so I’m hoping all my other fellow clerks around the state who are using this process can give some good feedback to the Legislature because this would be great if we can get this permanently into law,” Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp told News 8 Monday. 

He’s referring to a sunset clause written into the legislation. The Legislature will need to take additional action to establish pre-processing time as a permanent law. 

While the additional time is helpful, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has been critical of the single-day timeframe given Michigan will likely see double the 1.6 million absentee ballots cast in August. The state has already set a record with 2.9 million absentee ballots returned for Tuesday’s vote. 

Statewide, absentee tabulation took 40 hours in the primary.

“Based on basic math, we should expect it would take no more than 80 hours to count those ballots, which would take us through Friday,” Benson said during a Monday afternoon press conference

Other municipalities that qualified to pre-process absentees include Battle Creek, Holland, Kalamazoo, Portage, Wyoming, Kentwood, Plainfield Township and Gaines Township. 

In Kent County as a whole, 188,961 absentee ballots had been returned as of Monday morning out of 221,367 issued. The Kent County Clerk said 68,967 absentee ballots were cast in the 2016 election while 97,846 were cast in August for the primary. 

In Calhoun County, absentee return is above 85%. The chief deputy clerk of elections said more than 29,000 of the 34,135 absentee requests have been returned. 

The Kalamazoo County clerk shared similar return data. As of Tuesday morning, 86% of the 93,805 sent to county voters have been returned. Kalamazoo is an example of a county that could double the amount of absentee votes cast compared to August, when 47,029 votes were cast absentee. 

News 8 has reached out to clerks across West Michigan. The data listed above is from those who responded as of 5 p.m.

SMALLER COMMUNITIES FIELD ABSENTEE QUESTIONS

Some smaller municipalities, like Kent County’s Bowne Township, southeast of the city of Grand Rapids, aren’t big enough to pre-process absentee ballots but are still seeing strong turnout. Bowne Township Clerk Sandra Kowalcyzk said she has had more than half her voters choose absentee, and they had plenty of questions about how it would work.

“The open voting was the biggest thing, early voting. They thought they were able to come in and fill out their ballot and feed it in to the tabulator. And that’s not true,” she said.

In Michigan, absentee ballots can’t actually be tabulated until 7 a.m. Election Day.

Kowalcyzk said her office is prepared for in-person voting Tuesday.

“That there will be no problem. We’ll be fine… We cater to our residents and so they know what to expect,” she said. “We’re hoping to wrap up (counting) tomorrow. It needs to be over. I’m sure all of the clerks in Kent County feel the same way.”

—News 8’s Emily Linnert contributed to this report.

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