TRAVERSE CITY — Record in-person turnout at the polls might not come Tuesday. But record-breaking absentee voting is already in the books.
Clerks from the five-county region — Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Leelanau and Kalkaska — reported they have sent and received more absentee ballots than ever before.
GT Clerk Bonnie Scheele said 37,463 absentee ballots were issued. Nearly 30,000 of those have been returned. That figure likely will be more than double the 2016 figure of returned ballots (15,089) before Election Day on Tuesday.
Registered voters in Grand Traverse also shot up, Scheele said. She expects more than 81,000 eligible voters in the county. Scheele said that number has never cracked 80,000 before and was 73,628 four years ago.
“People have been registering and voting absentee like crazy,” Scheele said. “It’s been quite a busy few months.”
Based on the volume of ballots coming in, Scheele expects two-thirds of voters will take the absentee route. That volume has township clerks and deputies “working their butts off,” Scheele said.
Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy reported record highs in registered voters (22,052), absentee ballots mailed (8,418) and absentee ballots returned (6,929).
Benzie also set records down the line. The 15,530 registered voters is the most the county has seen, and almost 6,000 of the 7,073 absentee ballots issued have been returned.
“That’s pretty darn good,” Benzie County Clerk Dawn Olney said.
In Leelanau, County Clerk Michelle Crocker said they were on the way to a 90 percent return of the 11,198 absentee ballots issued to more than half of the 21,381 registered voters in the county — all record numbers.
Crocker said it remains to be seen if the jump in absentee voting will translate into a decrease of in-person voting, but she expects the overall turnout to be higher than the normal 75 percent Leelanau sees on election days.
Kalkaska County Clerk Deborah Hill, before seeing the current figure of registered voters, guesstimated there were around 13,000. Hill later reported the number was significantly higher at 16,025. A smaller percentage of absentee ballots than the other four counties were sent out (4,287 or about 27 percent). Returned absentee ballots neared 3,500.
The explanation for the increase in absentee voting is the same as it was in August — the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scheele said the county precincts are preparing just as they did three months ago, readying to provide personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, plastic dividers and a set routine of cleaning areas after people vote.
But the number of people voting absentee who have never done so before is creating confusion.
Hill said that confusion is only amplified by the “mixed information” they are hearing from the Secretary of State and news outlets.
Clerks said inexperience led to voters dropping off their ballots at the wrong jurisdictions, going to the wrong precincts or simply misunderstanding the process to vote absentee.
“The voters are frustrated,” Hill said. “They began to question if we know what we’re doing and the integrity of our elections. That’s something we don’t want.”
Scheele and Crocker said voters are also worried about their absentee ballots being received in time.
Both said voters should take their ballots to their township dropbox or hand it directly to their township clerk.
Scheele does not suggest people send their ballot through the mail.
The clerks do not expect the confusion or increase in absentee voting to result in voter fraud.
Scheele and Olney, who have a combined total of 28 years working as county clerks, said they have only seen one reported case of voter fraud in that time. Someone tried to vote in both Grand Traverse and Benzie.
Scheele said that was before the qualified voter file each precinct has on hand.
“Our software system prevents that from happening,” Scheele said. “If you come into vote, they’ll look you up and see you’ve registered somewhere else.”
Crocker, in her 24 years as clerk, has never seen a case of voter fraud. Neither has Guy, who has been clerk in Antrim for 12 years.
Hill said she has seen a couple cases of voter fraud in her 13 years as clerk.
Although national results might not be known for days, all five clerks said they do not expect their tabulation to stretch that long.
Scheele said Grand Traverse should be helped by the high-speed tabulators in East Bay and Garfield townships as well as the City of Traverse City.
“Everything we get by Election Day will be processed on Election Day,” Scheele said. “It might be a real long night, but we’ll have the unofficial results that night or early the next morning.”
Crocker expects the first set of results to be released between 8:30-9 p.m. Tuesday, but the completed unofficial results are expected between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.
“No one is going home until we’re done,” Crocker said.
Hill knows there is a greater want to know the results as soon as possible Tuesday, but she said those likely will not be in as early as previous elections.
The feel of the coming election might be different, but Olney said “it’s just voting day.”
“I’m hoping everything is going to be status quo,” she said. “But it’s always a crapshoot. You never know what to expect.”