Finally: Meticulous vote count wraps in Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In years past, Grand Rapids voters have known on election night which way races would go. This year, amid a flood of absentee votes, it wasn’t until about 23 hours after polls closed that the count was concluded.

“In 2016, the clerk’s office on election day basically did a smaller absentee counting board and Election Day was the big event; that was the Super Bowl,” Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp said, saying a 2018 ballot proposal that reformed Michigan voting rules changed the game. “We’re now in a seven-day World Series where we’re doing same-day registrations, we’re doing absentees in person for no reason. So it’s great access for the voters, but it is a lot more work for the clerk’s office.”

Preliminary figures from the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office put the total number of votes cast statewide at about 5.2 million, about 3.3 million of which were cast absentee. Precise numbers have not yet been released. Regardless of the final totals, what’s clear is that Michigan has handily surpassed its previous absentee record of 1.6 million, which was set in August.

It took longer than usual for results to come in primarily due to that huge number of absentee ballots. The Michigan Legislature approved extra time Monday for local clerks to prepare those ballots, but actual tabulation of votes still could not begin until 7 a.m. Election Day.

“There’s a lot of things just because you’ve got it in an envelope. You’ve got to check the signature, you’ve got to check the number of the ballot to make sure that that’s accurate. You’re opening the ballot, you’re taking it out, you’re checking it again, straightening it out,” Kalamazoo County Clerk Tim Snow explained the laborious process. “There’s a lot of activity going. It’s just a lot of hands-on, touching every single ballot to prepare it to then go through the tabulator.”

He noted that if the ballot count from the tabulator machine doesn’t reconcile with what was expected, the stack has to be checked and run again.

Hondorp, the Grand Rapids clerk, added that even with the extra processing time Monday, his team had to recount all envelopes and secrecy sleeves again Tuesday before tabulation could begin.

“To have to go do it again, it just didn’t seem to make sense,” he said.

He said tabulating machines had finished running shortly before 5:55 p.m., though one group of adjudicators was still checking any that had odd marks like checks rather than filled-in ovals to ensure each voter’s will was accurately determined. That group finally wrapped up shortly after 6 p.m.

“It’s not a delay, it’s just that’s the process that we do to do elections,” Hondorp said earlier in the afternoon, adding he didn’t yet have a timeline of when his teams would be finished.

Hondorp said election workers ran into some minor technical difficulties — the tabulators weren’t taking large batches of ballots and there was a hiccup because one batch had a different paper weight that the tabulators were flagging.

In all, he said, Grand Rapids saw about 59,000 absentee ballots and another 35,000 votes cast in person Tuesday. In 2016, about 69,000 people voted in person and about 16,000 absentee votes.

“So this is a whole different process,” Hondorp said.

Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons said the state’s fourth-largest county saw about 75% total turnout, compared to about 70% in 2016. She added the county say a 93% return rate from those who requested absentee ballots.

The clerk soothed worries that surfaced about the type of pens used at some polling places Tuesday, tweeting that Sharpie markers would be just fine when votes were being tabulated.

In Kalamazoo County, West Michigan’s second-largest jurisdiction, Snow said 96% of the absentee ballots requested had been returned for a total of 91,000 ultimately cast.

“Even going to into the beginning of this year, we knew we had Proposal 3 from 2018, so we knew AV (absentee vote) ballots were going to get doubled,” he said. “With the pandemic, it was way more than double what we had seen. In fact, it was triple pretty much what we had seen in the past, and so each election got bigger and bigger and bigger this year as far as absentee ballots. This is almost double what we saw in August.”

The high return rate, he said, showed enthusiasm for the election.

Snow expected to finish counting Wednesday evening, saying the city of Kalamazoo was the last jurisdiction still working. Kalamazoo City Clerk Scott Borling released this statement Wednesday afternoon:

“The City Clerk’s Office and Absent Voter Counting Board are working hard to complete the tabulation of the City’s absent voter ballots and reporting the results, and we expect to have the counting finished tonight. We are focused on the accuracy of the results and ensuring that every vote counts. Community members are asked to be patient as counting continues.”

In Detroit, where there was a kerfuffle over vote challengers, the count continued past 6 p.m.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said she was optimistic that the majority of the ballots in the state would be tabulated by the end of Wednesday.

“Every single ballot in Michigan will be counted,” she promised at an afternoon briefing. “We are on track to have results by Friday but could have results much sooner.”

—News 8’s Lynsey Mukomel and Kyle Mitchell contributed to this report.