(WXYZ) — As of earlier this week, nearly 2 million Michiganders had requested an absentee ballot, and around 1.12 million of those ballots have already been returned ahead of the Nov. 8 election, according to the Michigan Secretary of State's Office.
There's a whole process that happens once that absentee ballot is received by your city or township clerk, and we spoke with one local clerk to detail the process of what happens through and after Election Day.
Reminder: If you are voting absentee and haven't returned your ballot, officials are asking that you drop it in a drop box or hand-deliver it to the clerk's office to guarantee your vote is counted.
Storing ballots before Election Day
First, to break down what happens when you send in your absentee ballot for those who may not know – you fill out the ballot, fold it and put it in a secrecy envelope or secrecy sleeve, then place the secrecy envelope in another envelope, seal it, sign it and date it. Then, you'll either send the absentee ballot back to the clerk's office, or drop it off at a ballot drop box or at the office.
Once it's there, Troy City Clerk Aileen Dickson said the ballots are taken in by the clerk's office, the first thing they do is scan the ballot in and check the signature against the Qualified Voter File – QVF – to make sure it matches the signature they have on file.
"As long as the signatures match what we have on file, this ballot would be received in with a date. The date gets recorded in QVF when we received that ballot, and the envelope gets date-stamped with an electronic date stamper," Dickson said. "It's another record that we officially received the ballot in."
Then, the envelope will go down to a secure room inside city hall by sworn election employees, who count the envelopes to make sure the number matches. For example, if the city said they have 1,000 ballots received in QVF, they should count 1,000 envelopes in the tray in the secure room. Those numbers are verified every day as we approach the election, Dickson said.
"When we're this close to the election, it's an everyday process where they count how many ballots we received that day, they verify it against the report from QVF," she said.
When those numbers match, Dickson said the envelopes are then rubber-banded together and placed in the secure room that is only accessible by sworn election official staff.
The Monday before Election Day
In 2020, lawmakers made a change that would allow pre-processing of the ballots to happen, and they once again passed a law allowing that to happen in 2022 up to two days before the election. So, Dickson said the City of Troy will be pre-processing ballots on Monday, Nov. 7.
What is pre-processing? It allows sworn election officials to slice open the first envelope and remove the secrecy sleeve with the ballot in it. The ballot does not actually get exposed and does not come out of the secrecy sleeve and the ballot stub doesn't get removed until Tuesday.
Those secrecy sleeves are counted in batches of 50 in Troy, and then put into a ballot bag, which is the same ballot bag used for all secure ballots. The ballot bag is sealed in bundles of 50 in Troy, and it's left in the secure room until Tuesday.
What happens on Election Day?
On Tuesday at 7 a.m. when the polls open, the same group of election inspectors with a few more people, open up the ballot bags and re-count them to make sure the numbers match up from Monday night.
"Once we verify that, the inspectors can remove the stub and take the ballot out of the sleeve, flatten it out, and get it ready for scanning," Dickson said.
According to Dickson, the city has five high-speed tabulators and the absentee board team is broken up into five teams, each with its own workstation and scanner. Dickson said they use the Hart Verity Central scanners. She said there are about 20 election inspectors on each AB Counting Board team.
Then, the staff will start working on ballots that were received after Monday morning, which come straight to the absentee counting board in Troy. The staff then does the entire process start to finish in stations. There isn't pre-processing like there had been before Tuesday for ballots received before Monday afternoon.
Dickson said the first station will pull out the secrecy sleeve and pass it to the second station. The second station will remove the ballot stub, the third station will remove the ballot and get it ready for processing.
There are never more votes than ballot stubs that are torn off, and the number has to match exactly on the final count. The stub includes the ballot number, and by removing it, it makes the ballot a secret ballot.
"At the end of the night, we have all the pre-processed ballots scanned, and all the new ballots that came in since Monday afternoon scanned in, everything is done, then we can close the machines down and the AB counting board can close down for the night, and the results will be ready to be sent to Oakland County," Dickson said.
What is ballot duplication?
There is a process that sometimes has to be used during counting called ballot duplication. That's when the scanner can't read the ballot for a variety of reasons. Maybe you spilled coffee on it while doing it at the kitchen table, or it has a rip in it, or, Dickson said, many people use white-out and the scanners can't read it.
According to Dickson, the election inspectors are looking for things like that before they go into the scanner, and if they find it, those ballots go into a separate tray.
Then, a team of one Republican and one Democrat do the duplication. They work as a team and have a supply of blank ballots from the precinct.
"So they would take a blank ballot and then they would take the ballot that's damaged and they would work together as a team, and one person reads the votes off of the damaged ballot and the other person records the votes onto the new ballot. And then they are working together. So they're viewing each other's work to make sure that they're being accurate," Dickson said.
Then, the absentee counting board and the team of ballot duplicators write a number on both the damaged ballot and the new ballot – something like "original 1" and "duplicate 1" so that the original ballots go into a specific envelope for the damaged ballots, and the new ballot goes to the chairperson who is doing the scanning.
The ballots both have a marking on them, so if there was a time during the election canvass where they needed to match up the original with the duplicate, the clerk would be able to do that because each is marked and in an envelope, and the duplicate ballots go into a ballot bag but are also marked as duplicate.
"So then in the canvas, we can take the original one and the duplicate one and match them up and make sure that they agree," she said.
What happens to the ballots after the election?
According to Dickson, when all the work is done in the Absentee Ballot Counting Board, the ballots are once again sealed into ballot bags with one Democrat and one Republican working together to seal the bags. They are brought back to city hall and kept in a secured room during the canvass.
Dickson said that if the board of canvassers needs to review anything or have them open the bags, it wouldn't be done at the city. Instead, the bag would be taken up to the Oakland County headquarters either by Dickson or the deputy clerk, to be opened.
"The only time it would be allowed to be opened is in the presence of a canvasser," she said.
Once it's done, it's sealed and brought back to city hall and kept in the secure room and kept there under seal for 30 days.
What if you have questions?
Dickson encouraged anyone with questions to check out the City of Troy website, where they have the election training manuals and more descriptions of how the process works.
She also said that people can call the clerk's office or email them to ask questions, because people may not know exactly what is going on.
City of Troy Election Inspector training by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd
Election Precinct Procedures Binder by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd