Costs of early voting concern county clerks

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Capital News Service 

LANSING – As the impact of early voting mandate’s rolls out, county and other municipal clerks’ offices are looking at higher spending during election season.

Many local officials report that added state funding will not cover all the necessary expenses . 

Proposal 2, which voters approved last year, included the right of citizens to file a single application to vote absentee in all elections. It also requires state-funded absentee-ballot drop boxes and paid postage for absentee applications and ballots.

The proposal also requires at least a nine-day early voting window for all elections. 

The Legislature budgeted $46 million this fiscal year for implementing early voting. Of that amount, $30 million to assist the clerks’ offices during the 2024 primaries and general election. 

The Secretary of State’s Office started distributing the money on Oct. 1.

The money initially goes to the county clerks before the counties redistribute it to city, village and township clerks. 

Macomb County Clerk Anthony Forlini said he applied for $1.4 million because of the number of voters in large communities like Warren and Sterling Heights. 

Forlini said that when the county receives the funds, he will give all but $100,000 to municipal clerks.

“They’re the ones that need the money,” Forlini said. “They’re the ones that run the elections.” 

Forlini said it will pay for new tabulators – voting machines – that need updating because early voting machines must be separately programmed from those used on Election Day. 

Forlini also said much of the funding will pay for additional staffing needed for the early voting period. 

Under the ballot proposal, nine days is the minimum allowed for early voting. Counties have the option of setting a period of up to 29 days.

Forlini said the state money is simply not enough for Macomb County’s 24 jurisdictions, which range from Warren with 140,000 voters to Harrison Township with only 24,000. 

Forlini said only 40%-80% of his county’s needs, and needs across the state, will be funded.

“They’re asked to do more without giving them 100% funding,” Forlini said. 

The Secretary of State’s Office said the level of funding depends on what is requested, whether the jurisdictions are coordinating with each other or the county, and the number of jurisdictions in a county. 

“We are going to try to fund as much as we can, but $30 million may not cover all the costs that are going to be incurred,” said Cheri Hardmon, the senior press secretary. “Our first priority is ensuring that every jurisdiction has the necessary equipment and staffing to run early voting.” 

Clare County Clerk Lori Mott said small counties and municipalities had not budgeted for the “huge undertaking” that came with passage of Proposal 2.

While Mott said the money is necessary to handle the immediate effects of the proposal, she also believes that funding should not always come from the state but from the counties’ own budgets. 

Mott said that since the voters passed it, then townships and counties should pay for implementation after the current round of state funding.

“Does that mean increasing their millage to pay for it? One way or another, the taxpayers are going to pay whether the state taxes them or the county taxes them or their township and city taxes them,” Mott said.

Another added cost is the education aspect, such as distributing postcards and flyers to every voter. Mott said that alone would cost Clare County $26,000. 

Since every county must create its own plan and decide how to spend its funds, Clare County decided to create a consistent plan among all of its townships, allocating its $105,000 to the county instead of splitting it up locally.

“I thrive on consistency, and I think the voters do too,” Mott said. “It’s very confusing when things are done differently in different areas, especially within the county. I wish that it would have been consistent statewide.” 

Justin Roebuck, the Ottawa County clerk, said his office requested $103,000 for 24 election machines.

He said the biggest challenge will be the timeline for planning what the state hopes to accomplish.

“The proposals passed in November of last year, but we didn’t get specific legislative direction of how we actually had to implement it until June 29, when Gov. Gretechen Whitmer signed it,” Roebuck said about the funding. “There’s a whole lot of planning when it comes to such a huge operation like this.”

Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou, D-East Lansing, the chair of the House Elections Committee, said the goal of the aid was to make the “clerks comfortable implementing early voting.” 

Tsernoglou said, “We are trying to work with clerks to make it all as painless as possible, and just get these things done because they really are going to be just truly monumental for voter access.” 

Hardmon, of the Secretary of State’s Office, said there was no money in the budget last year for early voting. 

Hardmon said the department has received 71 applications from counties and is awaiting applications from the other 12. 

She said it is working through the applications and is first focusing on jurisdictions that are offering early voting this November.

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