GR clerk shares recap of ballot counting process

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After receiving national attention for record-breaking absentee turnout, the Grand Rapids city clerk is providing perspective on what’s needed to be more efficient.

According to Kent County’s election results, 97,240 votes were cast by Grand Rapids residents this election. Of those, more than 59,000 were absentee. 

News 8 documented the nearly 36-hour process completed by the absentee counting board inside DeVos Place.

“We probably could’ve used two more tabulators, but if we were running at that speed, I don’t know if that really would’ve helped us in the end,” Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp told News 8 from his home office Thursday after working nearly 48 hours straight.

He previously explained the city identified a slight variance in paper weight between the two batches of absentees that were printed to keep up with interest. Identifying that prompted a visit from the vendor Wednesday and helped things get back on track.

Even still, ballots could only be sent through about 25 at a time. Each time one was flagged for improper markings or a write-in candidate, it had to be adjudicated, sometimes taking several minutes to reach an agreement on the vote.

“You would need 76 regular tabulators all lined up with people basically running precincts to do that,” Hondorp explained when asked about expediting the process to get results as fast as possible.

When Proposal 3 passed overwhelmingly in 2018, it didn’t necessarily account for the added work load that’s created when more people vote by never stepping into a polling place. Added workload then means added fiscal impact.

Plus, current Michigan law prevents absentee ballots from being tabulated as they’re received. Certain jurisdictions could do some pre-processing Monday, but envelopes that were opened had to be recounted Tuesday morning before tabulations could actually start.

“Election Day has now become from a one-day event to a one-month event for the clerk’s office,” Hondorp said, adding the city hired five temporary staff members in response and leaned on other city departments for staff support.

For this election, the city received a $280,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life to lease more equipment and offer hazard pay for election workers stepping up amid COVID-19. The state also covered postage costs and provided personal protection equipment through the CARES Act.

Both are helpful sources of funding, but they can’t provide a permanent solution to voting trends that could remain even after the pandemic subsides.

“It’s going to change how we budget, how we staff,” the clerk said.