After record-breaking Michigan primary, eyes turn toward November election

In addition to the record-breaking number of mail-in votes cast in Michigan's primary earlier this week, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson thinks Michigan could be in for an even busier November election for absentee voting.

"We know that we can already anticipate 2.4 million will vote by mail."

Buoyed by fears of the COVID-19 pandemic while having issued absentee ballot applications to every resident in Michigan, the secretary of state's office counted 1.6 million votes were sent through the mail. So far, approximately 2.4 million voters have either applied for an absentee ballot or are on the state's permanent absentee list.

Overall, Michigan's August primary was a "success" Benson said during a virtual press conference with reporters on Thursday. There were very few lines or crowds at polling stations, and yet the state saw record turnout for a primary election, where 2.5 million people voted. The previous record for a primary election was the 2018 primary when 2.2 million people voted. 

However, results were still delayed, as elections officials had predicted. Beyond some of the easier-to-call races, many nominating contests couldn't be confirmed until midday on Wednesday. The latest precinct numbers to be reported came from polls in Wayne County.

Now, election officials are turning their heads toward the November election, which brings its own cocktail of election uncertainty. In addition to expectations that more people will vote, there's no real way of telling what the status of the COVID-19 pandemic will be.

Benson said she's concerned more absentee ballots will further impede clerks' ability to accurately total votes in a timely fashion.

"If we give clerks an extra day on the front end to begin processing ballots, they can have a full extra 12 hours or more to prepare...," she said.

If given the extra time, clerks would be allowed to unseal mailing envelopes, flatten ballots, and sort them into the appropriate precinct. Currently, all of that is done, in addition to the actual vote counting, after 7 a.m. on election day. Laws currently prohibit any tabulation process, including opening the envelope and sorting the ballot prior to election day.

Another law states any ballots postmarked before election day but received afterward 8 p.m. when polls close are rejected. While it's unclear how many fell into this category, Benson said 10,000 ballots were rejected for the August primary. Other reasons ballots could have been rejected include if the signatures don't match.

The secretary of state advocated for changing both of those laws ahead of the general election.