There are nearly 65,000 active registered voters in Grand Traverse County – and next Tuesday, many will head to the polls to vote on road millages, school bonds and (for city residents) mayoral and commission candidates.
But what happens behind the scenes? Who's tallying the votes, monitoring the precincts and ensuring the voting process runs smoothly and accurately? The Ticker turned to City Clerk Benjamin Marentette, who has overseen 30+ Traverse City elections and serves on a Michigan Secretary of State advisory panel reviewing state voting processes.
To tabulate votes, Grand Traverse County uses ACCU VOTE voting machines, which use optical calibrated scanners to read marked paper ballots and tally the results. Traverse City's machines are housed in a fireproof vault in a city-based storage location (Marentette declined to reveal the exact address for security purposes). A month before the election, city staff conduct extensive tests on the ballots and equipment to ensure accuracy; three additional tests are conducted just before the election.
An AutoMARK function of the machines – which provides auditory, Braille and Spanish language voting options – ensures voters with physical or linguistic challenges are able to vote. The machines also alert poll workers when a ballot is illegitimate (for example, when a voter votes outside their political party in a primary). But while the machines are technologically sophisticated, they still rely on old-fashioned paper ballots. So is online voting in the near future?
“Until there's adequate technology and a level of confidence by all segments of society in that voting process, we're not ready to make such a switch,” says Marentette. “Paper ballots may seem antiquated, but they're something physical people can go back to and look at and recount. It's not asking a computer to tell you the same results it gave you before.”
Each of Traverse City's nine voting precincts is overseen by eight election officials appointed by Marentette and confirmed by the County Election Commission. On election day, the chair and vice chair of each precinct (who must be of opposite political parties) report to the city at 5:30 a.m., retrieve sealed ballots and voting machines, then head to their polling locations. These officials reconcile and affirm results at the end of the day, ensuring the number of ballots equals the number of voters who came in; those results are in turn affirmed by the city and county clerks and the county Board of Canvassers.
73 paid poll workers, who receive a base rate of $10/hour, also man the precincts. Such workers must go through extensive training -- including review of an 80-page election manual -- and must be politically neutral in their interactions with voters. Voters might notice poll workers skew to an older demographic; Marentette says the job tends to attract retirees because of the time demands, though he adds that he “absolutely welcomes workers of all ages."
While Marentette has yet to deal with a recount in his tenure - “thankfully,” he laughs – he's had more than one memorable election moment. On one election day, a voter declared his intention to burn his ballot on-site at a polling booth; city staff were eventually able to talk him out of it. Marentette also recalls a sober election day on September 11, 2001: “People asked if we were going to cancel or reschedule. But we had to go ahead, because we couldn't cancel without a court order.”
Most elections run smoothly – thanks to careful planning behind the scenes. “A lot of folks think election day is pulled together in a couple days, but it's a three-month planning process,” says Marentette. He adds, smiling: “Organization is the key to happiness.”