Michigan absentee voting smashed records. Now officials are worried about mail delays.

Sarah Lehr
Lansing State Journal

Absentee voting smashed records in Michigan this week, although officials warn thousands of ballots across the state may not have been counted because they arrived too late by mail. 

Those trends are likely to continue on an even larger scale in November as people vote absentee to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Because of possible delays, those voting by mail may not be able to wait until the last minute to return ballots, officials warned. 

Statewide, more Michiganders cast absentee ballots than during any election in Michigan's history, according to the Secretary of State's Office. 

The 1.6 million absentee votes represent 65% of the 2.5 million total votes cast in Tuesday's election.

Across Ingham County, 78% of the 66,953 people who voted did so absentee. More than 500 absentee ballots were rejected in Ingham County, county Clerk Barb Byrum said Thursday, although it was not clear how many of the rejected ballots arrived late. 

More: Lawsuit opposes signature check of absentee ballots in battleground Michigan

Hand sanitizer is positioned next to voting stickers at the Lansing City Clerk's Election Unit on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Lansing.

Statewide, more than 10,000 absentee ballots were rejected, the Michigan Secretary of State's office said Thursday morning, The office did not have a breakdown of the reasons for rejection, but predicted that estimate would climb as more late ballots arrive by mail.

Late arrival was the reason for more than half of the ballots rejected in Michigan's March 2020 primary, the Michigan Secretary of State's Office noted. 

Voters in Michigan's Aug. 4 primary could only vote for candidates from one political party, so split ticket votes could have led to rejected ballots. Additionally, people could have failed to sign the envelope containing their absentee ballot or election officials could have determined the signature looked different from the signature on voter registration rolls.

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Michigan ballot request deadline cuts it close

Michigan counts ballots received before 8 p.m. on Election Day, the time at which when polls close for in-person voting. It does not matter how soon your ballot was postmarked, but rather when it arrives. Other states count ballots postmarked before a certain date, such as Election Day or the day before. 

Michiganders had until July 31 to request an absentee ballot by mail for the Aug. 4 election, but advocates, as well as state and local officials, warned that would be cutting it close if voters wished to return their ballots via mail. 

Related: State workers asked to take day off Tuesday to staff polls in Michigan primary election

Although the postal service says domestic first class mail generally arrives in two to five days, a Postal Service vice president warned in a May 2020 memo that election officials should plan for blank ballots taking at least one week to arrive. It could take another week on top of that for the voter to mail the ballot back, the memo warned.

Michiganders concerned their votes would not arrive on time were encouraged to drop ballots in secure drop boxes or to return them in person at local clerk's offices. And people could still vote in-person at the polls if they had requested an absentee ballot but did not turn it in.  

More: With primary votes tallied, election workers prepare for a busy November

Joe Cantin returns his absentee ballot to a drop box outside the Lansing City Clerk's Election Unit on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Lansing.

Delta clerk concerned about November mail deadlines

Michiganders voting in Nov. 3 general election will be able to request an absentee ballot by mail as late as Oct. 30, but Delta Township Clerk Mary Clark is "very concerned" about postal delays leading to uncounted votes. 

She's planning to mail out ballot applications to the township's permanent absentee voter list by Sept. 25. 

The Delta Township clerk's office will overnight a ballot to anyone willing to pay the extra postage, but Clark is warning voters to play it safe by allotting a full two weeks before the election for returning a ballot.

Sanitized ballot markers are displayed for voters at the Lansing City Clerk's Election Unit on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Lansing.

More: Coronavirus challenges elections, as longtime poll workers sit out to avoid virus exposure

Clark said the township had not received any late ballots from the Aug. 4 primary by mail as of Thursday afternoon, although she noted late ballots could still be en route.

Nearly 80% of the 10,264 Delta Township voters who participated in Tuesday's election voted absentee, Clark said. 

Delta Township rejected only five absentee ballots Tuesday because of signature problems, she said, adding that her office was calling people to fix signatures up until 20 minutes before polls closed on Tuesday. 

The minority of people who showed up in-person on Election Day were likely to encounter vats of hand sanitizer and people wearing masks at the polls.

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope is on the phone as he checks out a tabulator he ended up having to replace at the Alfreda Schmidt Southside Community Center polling station Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

Michigan primary 2020: Live updates following the August 4 election

City of Lansing: more than 75% voted absentee

In Lansing,18,840 people, or more than 75% of those who voted, took advantage of absentee voting via mail, through a drop-box or at a clerk's office, Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said. 

Eighty-eight Lansing absentee ballots arrived Wednesday, when it was too late for them to be counted, but it was not clear how early they had been postmarked, Swope said.

Thirty absentee ballots in Lansing were not counted because of signature problems — 29 ballots were unsigned and one was signed by a person other than the voter, Swope said. The clerk's office contacted those people but they did not respond to fix the problems before polls closed, Swope said.

Signs about mask etiquette are stacked on a table as volunteers work to prepare materials for polling places at the Lansing City Clerk's Election Unit on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Lansing.

Lansing has promoted absentee voting for years through a permanent absentee voter list, in which people can sign up to have an application for a ballot mailed during every election. The clerk's office also keeps offices for early "in-person absentee voting," so that people can request absentee ballots, fill them out and turn them in in person before Election Day. 

More: Former Meridian Twp. communications director defeats township Clerk Brett Dreyfus in primary

Benson sent absentee voter applications to millions

Additionally, in advance of the August election, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson used $4.5 million in federal funding to mail absentee ballot applications to the state's nearly 7.7 million registered voters. 

A 2018 constitutional amendment expanded voting rights in the state, allowing voters under 60 to vote absentee without citing a specific reason, such as being out of town on Election Day.

More: August 2020 election: Voters approve tax proposals in Ingham, Clinton, Eaton counties

A 2020 executive order in response to the coroanvirus mandates masks in public confined spaces, although Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office has clarified that masks are encouraged but not required for voters at the polls. 

There were reports in Ingham County of poll workers who wrongly asked voters to remove their masks in order to check someone's face against photo Identification, County Clerk Barb Byrum told the county's Board of Canvassers Thursday. Voters should not be required to remove their masks, she said, noting that people can sign an affidavit of identity instead of providing a photo ID. 

Contact reporter Sarah Lehr at slehr@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGLehr.