Michigan and Ohio are ready for the higher voter turnout, their secretaries of state say

The U-M Ford School hosted a conversation on voting rights and voter access, featuring Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. (Photo: University of Michigan webinar)

Ann Arbor, Mich. — The University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy hosted a webinar on Friday afternoon with the secretaries of state from Michigan and Ohio. Sec. Jocelyn Benson (MI) and Sec. Frank LaRose (OH) were both asked about their state’s approaches for mail-in ballots and in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jocelyn Benson is Michigan’s 43rd Secretary of State. A graduate of Harvard Law School and expert on civil rights law, education law and election law, Benson served as dean of Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. 

Frank LaRose took office as Ohio’s 51st Secretary of State on January 14th, 2019. Prior to being elected to statewide office, he served two terms in the State Senate representing the 27th Senate District in northeast Ohio. 

The virtual event was moderated by Jenna Bednar, a U-M Professor of Political Science and Public Policy. She is the Edie N. Goldenberg Endowed Director for U-M’s Michigan in Washington Program. 

Q: The Election is underway. We can no longer talk about Election Day but instead it’s an election season and we’re in the midst of it. Every where I turn I hear so much worry. People are worried about the outcome of course, but also about the process. They worry that their mailed ballots will be lost or arrived too late or if they are voting in person that they will catch COVID or that the lines will be too long. I’d like to begin by talking about some of these worries and how you are managing them.

Benson said that the November election will be the fourth the state has hosted so far in 2020 during COVID-19.

Benson: “We have honed our process and piloted different things throughout. Yes, we very much are ready for November. We have doubled, in some cases triples, our machines for high speed tabulators and envelope openers. We have recruited close to 30,000 election workers which is far in excess of what we need to accomplish our goals for Election Day. I’m very optimistic. I think that even in this time of uncertainty where people are anxious and fearful for so many things that we let them know whether their vote is going to count. 

“We can’t begin counting absentee ballots until 7 a.m. on election day. We anticipate that 70 percent of citizens voting this fall will vote early or absentee. The vast majority of ballots aren’t going to be counted in precincts as we go through the day. They will be tabulated beginning at 7 a.m. on Election Day itself. That’s going to take time. We’ll have three and a half million ballots to get through across the state. As we have increased the number of high-speed tabulators, and people who are trained to process securely those ballots, it’s still not possible for any state to go through that many ballots securely, methodically and safely in 12 hours. We’ve said consistently in Michigan that you can expect results by Friday at the latest but hopefully sooner. We have a two-week certification period which has always been the case. At the end of the certification period is when our clerks will certify the full results.”

Meanwhile, LaRose said that Ohio has been doing absentee voting for the past 20 years and as it down to a science. In addition, early voting is already underway in Ohio.

LaRose: “It’s been embraced by both Republicans and Democrats for good cause. It’s a convenient and secure way to cast a ballot. We also note that we are going to see a higher volume this year than we’ve ever seen. I just reported recently that we’ve already had 2.1 million absentee ballot requests. Michigan is currently beating us on this but we’re going to overtake it. If you look at past years, we’d normally be right around a million at this point. We’re already at 2 million and have doubled that number. What they tells us is that Ohioans want to vote this way and they trust it. Our boards of elections are also ready high volumes of absentee voting. Even in a routine election we see 20-25 percent of our ballots come in by mail. Our boards of elections are equipped for that. There are some times that errors get made. We’re dealing with an issue right now here in Columbus where an unacceptable mistake by the county board of elections. There were a number of voters that received the wrong ballot. They are in the process of remedying that now and sending replacement ballots to the voters. Certainly that should not decrease the trust that people have in the process. It really is a good way to cast your ballot.

Will we have final election results on election night? I get the question a lot. The honest answer is we never have final election results on election night. It’s just not the way that elections work. On election night, we report the unofficial results. That’s normally in the past been conclusive enough that people can look at those unofficial results and make a prediction about what the final tabulation will be but it’s never the final story. One of the reasons is because in Ohio, our absentee ballots can continue to arrive at boards of elections for 10 days. As long as it’s postmarked by Monday, Nov. 2nd, the board of elections can receive it up to 10 days later. It will count as part of that official tabulation of ballots that we certify just about three weeks after the election here in Ohio.

Here’s something that we’re doing to be fully transparent on this. We’re making sure that people are armed with the full set of data on Election Day and it could go into Wednesday morning for us. We’re able to process absentee ballots as soon as they come in. That means today boards of elections are receiving absentee ballots they are making sure that name and address and date of birth all match up. They check the signature against the signature on file. All of these things are done real time here in Ohio. On Election night at 7:30, we hit the tabulate button once the polls close and in all of our 88 counties the first ballots counted are those absentee ballots because they are in already. On Election night, we’re going to report all of the absentee ballots that have come in so far, all of the election day votes that have come in so far as well as the early votes. We have a whole month of early voting in Ohio and that will be an unofficial number. Here’s the other thing that we’re going to report, the number of outstanding absentee ballots. It’s a knowable number but it’s never been publicly reported before. The boards of election keep a tally of how many ballots go out and how many come back. The difference is the number of outstanding ballots. That’s going to be highlighted right at the top of our election website. We’re empowering people to be well informed about the way election happens in Ohio.”

Q: Is Michigan ready to report the number of mail in ballots that have yet to be counted?

Benson: “We have been doing that. A lot of what Frank and I are doing is very similar. You can go to Michigan.gov/vote to see the number of people who have already requested ballots and the number of who already returned ballots. Amazingly, over 800,000 Michigan citizens have already voted in this election which is extraordinary. These are extraordinary numbers that are growing everyday. We expect to cross a million early next week. It really underscores the incredible amount of enthusiasm that voters have for the election this year.”

Q: Perhaps we haven’t paid significant attention to in-person voting in a pandemic. Are we ready for in-person voting during this pandemic? What has your team done about the concerns we’ve been hearing either about COVID contagion or about long voting lines or about voter intimidation?

Benson: “In Michigan, we do have options to vote this year. Of course, you can vote early by mail, you can vote in person or early at your local clerk’s office between now and the day before Election Day and then you can vote at the precincts on Election Day itself. One of the benefits of now this being the fourth election that we’ve run this year in the midst of the pandemic is that we’ve been able to at each one really improve upon and perfect the in-person voting option to make sure everyone’s health, safety and security.

Number one, all election workers have PPE, masks, gloves and sneeze guards. Polling places are set up with social distancing guidelines intact to ensure that no one’s health is at risk and that our CDC guidelines are followed in every precinct. Anheuser-Busch has just delivered gallons of hand sanitizer to every secretary of state to help with that. The second thing is we’re on track to have more citizens vote in Michigan’s election this November than ever before in any election in our state’s history. You do that by spreading the vote. Everyone knows the options they can choose the one that’s best for them. We have record numbers of people voting absentee in Michigan, record numbers of people voting early. We expect a third of voting to be at your local precinct on Election Day. We’ve tested this already at our three elections this year. Minimal crowds, minimal lines if any at all. About a third of voters choose to vote in person typically. We’re ready and we built the infrastructure for that.

I’m fortunate enough to have a tremendous Attorney General here in Michigan. We’re basically joined at the hip for the next weeks ahead as we work to develop safety protocols and working with local law enforcement as well. We have to ensure transparency of our precincts and polling places. We want people to have faith in the process and observe as poll watchers always have. If anyone becomes disruptive, they will be held accountable and removed.”

LaRose: “We’ve been working to encourage absentee and early voting but specifically to help make sure we don’t have lines or crowding on Election Day. That was a clear objective from the beginning. That’s why we’re so excited to see the record breaking numbers that we have of absentee votes right now. We sent out an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter in the state. I’ve been really happy to see a large and enthusiastic turnout this week. In fact, I predict we’re going to break the record for early voting in the first week of voting this week as well. In some cases, we have seen lines on the first day and second day of early voting. People have 27 other days that they can do early voting but people are enthusiastic to get out and vote. We’re really happy to see high numbers of absentee and early votes. In Ohio, we operate close to 4,000 polling locations. They have to be staffed by 37,000 Election Day volunteers. So one of our main thrusts has been recruiting not only the 37,000 to open the polls but an additional number. We’ve actually been aiming for 55,000 poll workers. We just went over 50,000 so we’re going to get there and then make sure that we have that reserve force trained and ready to go in case we need to call them in on Tuesday, November 3. 

As it relates to the health scenario, we’ve been very clear and I’ve been very clear. If you feel comfortable going to the grocery store, you should feel comfortable coming to your polling location. That’s because we’ve instituted a 61-point checklist. Maybe this is my military background but I’m a big fan of checklists. You can find it on our website at VoteOhio.gov. It was developed with the CDC and the Ohio Department of Health in coordination with our local election officials throughout the state. What it lays out is the standards we have to protect public safety. It’s the things that you would expect. It’s masks, shields, one door in and a different door out. It’s maintaining social distancing by separating the machines by at least six feet. It’s wiping down commonly touched surfaces, all of those things. We’ve also made sure that we’ve surged the supplies to our boards of elections that we needs. It starts with the $12 million in federal CARES Act money that we got which I pushed out the door, almost the entirety of that money, to our local election officials. They can use it to hire extra staff, buy extra mailing equipment, also purchase personal protective equipment. As Secretary Benson mentioned, we’ve also seen lots of great patriotic companies who have stepped up with donations. We have a mask manufacturer here in Ohio that donated close to a half of a million masks. Just like in Michigan, we’ve had Anheuser-Busch donate 3,000 gallons of hand sanitizer. As far as the health scenario goes in Ohio, we’re going to be ready to make sure that it is a healthy environment for both poll workers and election officials.

Finally, just like Michigan does, Ohio allows credentialed election observers. Those are individuals who are nominated by their party  or their candidate. They are credentialed, they are not allowed to carry firearms or wear uniforms or any other kind of pariphernalia  that identifies a particular party or candidate. They are very strictly governed in Ohio as far as what they are allowed to do. They are basically allowed to be a fly on the wall. They are there to observe the things that are going on in that polling location. If they see something that they don’t like, they can step out and call the Board of Elections. They can bring it to the attention of the person in charge of the polling location or they can call the legal counsel for their campaign or party. Under no circumstances can they interfere with the voting process or with the poll workers and the work they are doing. What they are not allowed to do in any capacity is intimidate voters or abstract voters or impede voters. The law is very clear on this in Ohio. That’s why I had a conference call this week with the county sheriff’s all throughout the state of Ohio. I sent them a memo clearly laying out our expectations for what local law enforcement will be doing to enforce the law in Ohio.”

Both secretaries of state appear confident that their states are ready to handle the higher voter turnout. However, they say final election results will take days or weeks before a winner will be declared.

Watch the full webinar below with Sec. Jocelyn Benson and Sec. Frank LaRose:

Video by University of Michigan