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MI holds first elections since announcing COVID-19 cases

Polling station
Hilary Farrell

  Roughly 10 percent of the state’s electorate has an election this May. The local elections are only happening in counties where crucial funding is on the line and can’t be pushed back to August. In person-voting is limited.

Gerrid Uzarski (Oo-zar-ski), the director of elections for Kent County, says peoplevoters who plan to cast their vote in-person should bring masks.

“We have a limited supply. We definitely need some help with that. So, if they could bring their own kind of face cover, we need help from them.”

After participating in Wisconsin’s April Presidential Primary, more than 36 voters tested positive for COVID-19. Local clerks say Michigan is more prepared after a big  push for vote by mail and sending election workers personal protective equipment. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says those things didn’t happen in Wisconsin.

“As you saw from the photos people were interacting very closely, no masks, no gloves, no hygiene equipment. People were in line without being six feet apart. All of those things were not followed. And so, taking a lesson from that we’re trying to show that if elections are held by mail, with limited in person voting they actually can be conducted safely even in the midst of a pandemic.”

Nancy Wang is the Executive Director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that shepherded redistricting reforms through the 2018 midterms. She says it’s possible to scale voting in a pandemic, safely.

“There is a path for us to do that. It takes political will, it takes funding, it takes statutory changes and it takes our state government supporting our local clerks, so that they can make the accommodations they need to keep voters safe.”

The state sent out Absentee Voter applications to 740,000 voters with an envelope and postage to send the application back. And, turnout is expected to be double what it is usually for May elections. But, it’s hard to plan for the August primary and general election in November without knowing if voters will be able to go to polling places.

A recent study by the Pew research center found 66 percent of surveyed Americans said they would be uncomfortable going to a polling place during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Jocelyn Benson says what we’ll likely see is a huge spike of absentee voting.

“I usually don’t like to prognosticate or predict, but we’ve got 7.7 million voters registered in Michigan right now. We can anticipate that a significant number, maybe 5 million will be voting this fall. And of that, 2-3 million of those ballots being voted from home, if not more. So, we’re anticipating for more ballots being sent in and needing to be counted centrally than ever before in our state’s history.”

To handle that number of absentee ballots the state will need more software, more people to process ballots (while remaining socially distant), and high-speed machines to count the ballots. And that all comes at a cost.

Liz Howard is counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which studies election security. They’ve released a report estimating those changes could come with a price tag  of up to 104 million in Michigan.

So far Congress has given the state just a quarter of the money it will need according to a senior election official. Howard says that won’t cut it.

“The amount of money that congress allocated for the entire country, 400 million, isn’t even enough to fund elections in the five states that we profiled.”

Nancy Wang, with Voters Not Politicians, says state lawmakers and congress will need to act to secure the money for big changes.

“The consequences here can’t be more stark, right? They’re life and death. And, if there are any issues that can bring both parties together this should be it.”

For now, election officials across the state will continue to hope for the best and plan for the worst. But whether they’ll have enough money to make the changes for safely voting in a pandemic remains to be seen.

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