Reporter's Notebook

A day inside the Rochester Hills absentee-voter counting board

By March 11, 2020 No Comments

It was a 16-hour day on the Rochester Hills absentee-voter counting board on Tuesday’s presidential primary. One of the earliest moments is what I remember most clearly. 

Tina Barton, the city clerk, shakes my hand, thanks me for coming, and says, “If I catch you taking notes, I’m going to call the sheriff. No bullshit.” I clear my throat and compliantly nod, and she gets back to her duties.

Barton’s threat didn’t catch me that off guard. This is the first presidential election year in which Michigan voters can cast an absentee ballot for no reason, and the result has been a surge in applications. To see what that looks like, I had been trying the entire previous week to find a way onto Barton’s counting board as both a volunteer and a reporter. She wouldn’t allow recording equipment into the room, nor would I be allowed to duck out for periodic phone dispatches back to the station. When I asked about bringing a notebook, she cited a case in which a volunteer in Bloomfield Township went to jail for meddling with ballots, and told me no. 

This was no posture. The process for opening and counting Rochester Hills’ absentee ballots (8,930 returned for this primary) was nothing if not secure. An employee collected our phones in a wicker basket first thing, so we couldn’t share results with outsiders. We had to travel to the bathroom in pairs. The absentee ballots themselves were repeatedly and painstakingly verified for accuracy. 

Here’s a rundown of that counting process. 

First, in the front of the office, one of Barton’s employees “reconciles” the ballots, making sure the ballots in hand (still in their mailing envelopes – they have signatures on the outside) match their record in the electronic voter file. In some cases they need to call a voter to ask what’s up with a funky signature. That happened yesterday; it was a broken arm. 

Rochester Hills Clerk Tina Barton | Credit: Will Callan

Second, the mailing envelopes are slit open. Those ballots, batched by precinct, move to the unpacking tables at the back of the office. Teams of five remove the secrecy sleeves from the mailing envelopes, remove the ballots, and flatten them for easier processing by the high-speed tabulators. 

Barton told me the average age of the Michigan elections volunteer is 76. That looked about right to me. Many of these folks, an even balance of Democrats and Republicans, have been volunteering with the board for years. One table on Tuesday was made up of friends from the same condominium complex. 

The next step comes once ballots from an entire precinct have been removed and stacked. (On Tuesday, the number of ballots per precinct ranged from around 180 to 450.) They move to the back room, where the high-speed tabulators are kept. This is a two-person job. While one person feeds up to 100 ballots at a time into the tabulator, the other runs the software. 

They resolve weird ballot-marking cases flagged by the software, print a report, and save the results to a flash drive. This is what I was doing, with Laura Paul, a 36-year-old Orion Charter Township resident who works in the clerk’s office as an administrative coordinator to the city council. 

Barton had warned me that it was going to be a long day. It was. The moment we surrendered our cell phones, we were sequestered, and wouldn’t get out until every absentee ballot had been counted and confirmed. That meant waiting until the 8 p.m. deadline to drop off absentee ballots in person, and then through some holdups with reconciling those remaining ballots. We were released at 10:30.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the long stretches of inaction. Barton treated the primary as a training session for the general election, when she expects to receive 20,000 absentee ballots. (That’s more than twice what we counted on Tuesday, and those general election ballots will contain many more items, meaning they’ll take longer to remove from their envelopes and feed through the tabulator.) So, although we only needed two volunteers to process the number of ballots we’d received, we used all four in preparation for November. That made the counting really snappy. 

The slowest part of the process by far was the removal of the ballots from their mailing envelopes and secrecy sleeves. State Senator Ruth Johnson (R-14) has introduced legislation that would allow counting boards to start this process early, and Barton has traveled to Lansing to argue in its favor. 

But one nice side effect of the slowness was the chance to get to know the other volunteers. Most of them came from Rochester Hills. Many were retired. Some had been volunteering on the counting board for 16 years. As I mentioned above, per state rules, there was a balance of Democrats and Republicans, though that didn’t keep idle conversation from drifting towards politics in the afternoon. I didn’t hear a single complaint (at least that wasn’t good-natured), and on their way out each worker saluted Barton, and each other, like they were good friends. 

It was a complete day, filled with boredom, laughter, fatigue, and some last-minute stress, and I’d happily do it again.