Williamston and Meridian Township Clerks report dramatically different absentee voting processes

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Meridian Township faces backlash from the Ingham County Clerk after the delayed mailing of absentee ballots while Williamston voters characterize voting as ‘seamless.’ 

Barb Byrum, the Ingham county Clerk, sent out a letter February 11 to the Meridian Township Board about the lack of urgency in mailing absentee ballots.

Ingham County Clerk

State law requires absentee voters to have their ballots mailed 40 days before an election. According to a letter sent out by Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, absentee ballots in Meridian Township were sent out February 14, 25 days before the Michigan Presidential Primaries took place on March 10.

January 23, wrote Byrum, is when absentee ballots should have been mailed, and at the time of her correspondence, Meridian only had a 35% return rate.

Byrum said a large number of absentee ballots in Meridian Township that were dated on February 14, but started processing on February 12. Byrum said the ballots were dated with a different date by Meridian Township officials.

Byrum said she sent the letter to Meridian Township trustees out of fear voters would face repercussions because of the delay in mailing absentee ballots. She had concerns that this would keep Meridian Township residents from voting in the Michigan Presidential Primary elections.

Byrum said the reason why she stepped in is because she “didn’t see anyone else holding him accountable.” Byrum wrote of Meridian Township Clerk Brett Dreyfus, “He was supposed to [mail them] as soon as he got the absentee ballots.”

Meridian Township Clerk

Dreyfus, Meridian Township clerk, said the reason why he sent out the absentee ballots late is because he was waiting for all the ballots to be tested before they are sent out to voters.

Dreyfus said: “The ballots are also required by the state to be tested before they go out. Testing a ballot means we have computer programing that you run the ballot through to make sure the ballot will work on Election Day. … So our county clerk has made a policy over the years of never having the programming available at the time we were supposed to mail the ballots out.”

Because the ballot testing took longer than expected the new deputy clerk suggested delaying when the absentee ballots are mailed. 

“We have a new deputy clerk on staff, and she wanted me to not mail them out before we get the programming,” said Dreyfus. “So we waited over a week. We still didn’t get the programming so we eventually mailed the ballots out a week late waiting for the programming.”

Dreyfus said it is very unlikely that ballots won’t be returned for counting in the election because the mass mailing of ballots occurred three weeks ago. 

“Everybody in Meridian that wanted an absentee ballot received an absentee ballot within a three week — period,” said Dreyfus.

Absentee Ballot process

Williamston City Clerk Holly Thompson sends out applications for absentee ballots at the beginning of January before the ballots are received through the mail.  

After overseas ballots are sent, she focuses on sending out all other ballots. Thompson said her team did really well and “got everything sent out pretty quickly.”

Thompson said since the 2018 Voting Policies in State Constitution Initiative proposal was passed, Williamston’s permanent absentee voter list has increased from 250 to almost 900, a 260% increase. 

She said this increase comes with a lot of challenges, especially when there are only two people working in the office. After Williamston started an absentee voter counting board to handle ballots because they take a long time to process, Williamston consolidated its two precincts into one. Thompson said in prior years those people may have not voted without the reminder of an upcoming election. 

Residents can get an absentee ballot until 8 p.m. on the day of the election and can cast their vote at city hall. Thompson said there were a lot of people registering to vote, absentee or not, on March 10. Residents used to have to be registered 14 days prior to the election. 

Thompson said sometimes the ballots get mailed out, but aren’t returned. “We still have quite a few out,” she said, “but it’s not a bad return rate this time.” She said she was waiting for 50 ballots.

The sign posted on the door of city hall shows the “Absentee Ballots Information Posting.” In Williamston, 645 ballots were issued and 567 ballots returned and delivered for processing from absentee voters by 8 a.m. on Election Day. Photo: Sophia Lada

Thompson said her team is trying to add to its list of absentee voters and have a goal of 500 more. “It’s a really cool option to have,” she said.

Pros and cons of absentee voting

Thompson said it’s often difficult to get to the precinct on a single day and vote between the given hours. If something goes wrong the day of, voting absentee lets you know your vote is already counted, said Thompson, who voted using an absentee ballot.

Comparison depicting the differences with absentee voting versus going to the polls. Diagram also shows who is eligible to vote in the state of Michigan and how to register. Graphic: Payton Wells

Williamston resident Paula Therrien voted in person at the precinct this year because she never got around to getting an absentee ballot. She said she has voted by absentee ballot in the past, and it was an easy process. The benefits of voting absentee include the flexibility with a work schedule. 

She said that in a community the size of Williamston, the 2018 proposal had a neutral effect. The precincts in Williamston rarely have long lines. Therrien said this proposal was more beneficial for bigger communities who do have the ‘long lines.’ 

Paula Therrien walks toward the precinct, which is at Williamston Middle School. Photo: Sophia Lada

Therrien doesn’t have many concerns regarding absentee voting, but has heard concerns from others in the community. She said people in general have concerns that their ballots aren’t counted. 

Janet Peters, a retired art teacher and resident of Williamston, has been voting absentee for more than a decade. She decided to start voting absentee because of her age.

The process of turning in and receiving an absentee ballot is pretty seamless, said Peters. She said that the 2018 proposal makes absentee voting more complicated for the staff. She’s not sure how they can keep all of it organized. 

Peters said she likes the opportunity to take her time on the ballot to ask questions about proposals. She sometimes felt ‘rushed’ voting at the precinct, and voting absentee “gives you a chance to not feel rushed,” said Peters.

Signs point Williamston residents in the direction of the polls at Williamston Middle School. Photo: Sophia Lada

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