Record Absentee Voting, Misinformation, And 36 Hours Without Sleep: Traverse City's Clerk Talks Election
By Luke Haase | Oct. 7, 2020
As local and national elections approach, Traverse City Clerk Benjamin Marentette is about to be at the center of the storm, handling voter registrations, absentee ballots, and eventually counting votes. We checked in to get the latest election facts and updates.
Ticker: Your job was challenging before. How’s it going now?
Marentette: I professionally and personally enjoy a challenge, but these aren’t the circumstances I’d like one created in. We're just having to plan for literally every possible scenario. And it’s the first presidential election where anyone can request an absentee ballot for no reason, and we’re also in midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s causing people to rethink how they want to vote. And then there are completely unfounded allegations that absentee voting is insecure. So we’re planning on every possible contingency. For instance, some who voted absentee might decide they want to vote in-person on Election Day. So we’re planning on a surge in absentee voting and robust turnout at the polls.
Ticker: Isn’t there any way based on numbers to guesstimate how many voters will do what?
Marentette: Normally there is, but the trends are all blown out the window. Again, it’s the first no-reason absentee in Michigan history, we mailed an invitation to every voter, and we already have sent 300 percent more absentee ballots than four years ago.
Ticker: But you know how many ballots you’re getting back...
Marentette: We know how many we’re getting, but we can’t tabulate them until 7am on Election Day. Normally we receive 95-98 percent of the absentee (ballots) back, and 40 percent or so come back in the last week. We're having more of a push to get them in sooner so we can gauge how many might choose to vote in person, too.
Ticker: So what is your staff doing now preparing for everything?
Marentette: I’ve added three people to my team almost full-time just to handle absentee ballots. There are calls, in-person visits, and many steps in receiving them to verify they are from the voter. We're applying for grant funding to offset our costs. We purchased — with the city commission’s support — a high-speed ballot tabulator that’s up to 20 times faster than traditional tabulators. We’re updating training manuals for the polling places, and we’re re-engineering a lot of the processes. Remember, the other people here on my team permanently are already busy without election stuff, so we’re all just having to prioritize our normal city business and election work.
Ticker: Can you tell us how many ballots have gone out and come back?
Marentette: Yes, we’ve issued 5,926 traditional absentee ballots and received 698 back, and we’ve issued 76 military/overseas ballots [which are actually emailed]. Typically for a presidential election we might issue a total of maybe 2,800 absentee ballots. So it remains to be seen if we see an overall increase in turnout or just a change in how people vote.
Ticker: It seems like you’re pushing voter registration and voting more than in previous elections. Is that true and if so, why?
Marentette: Yes, about a year-and-a-half ago, I was named by the Secretary Of State to the Michigan Election Modernization Committee, tasked with building a roadmap for implementing 2018’s Proposal Three, which allowed absentee voting for any reason. And as an offshoot, I become connected with the Center For Civic Design, which helps create messaging and inspirational messages for all things related to government activities and elections. There has been so much misinformation about voting and if and how ballots are counted, that I realized we needed to come up with more exciting messaging. So you’re right, there has been more of an emphasis on that. We hired a professional video production company to make videos letting people know that people have the right for same-day voter registration and absentee voting.
Ticker: Is getting the maximum people registered and voting part of your job and something you’re evaluated on, or just a personal passion?
Marentette: It’s a passion of mine but also an ethic. I think folks who hold public offices need to do everything they can to engage folks. I’m not evaluated on that per se; moreso on the experience of those who do vote. But it’s part of how I evaluate myself.
Ticker: Let’s talk about the integrity of election from a couple perspectives. Systems and IT...?
Marentette: The election equipment we have — tabulators and software — are tested in federal and state election laboratories to ensure they function exactly how they’re supposed to. Then leading up to the election, we do a "test deck,” a series of maybe 75 ballots from each polling location that have different voting combinations. According to Department of State regulations, we have to have 100 percent accuracy. After that, all the election equipment is sealed with tamper-proof wire seals certified by members of my team. Then following the election, Michigan has post-election audits, so other officials come in to review in great detail the conduct of the election in a randomly selected precinct and there’s also a hand-count. And each time those are done, there has to be 100 percent compliance. Michigan tends to get very good grades for its election practices. I’m a paperless guy in general, but you will never get me to change my mind on paper ballots. Michigan voters can feel very very good about voting here, and many states that went digital have gone back to paper voting.
Ticker: What about mail and the ability of the USPS to handle everything?
Marentette: The first thing is that absentee voters can track their ballots at michigan.gov/vote. That shows when the application was received, when the ballot was sent, and when it was received back. As far as the safety of it, there is literally no evidence ever of an election being altered because of mail-in voting fraud. And if someone wants to get an absentee ballot, they complete and sign the application and their signature is verified against government documents like a driver's license. And then again when the ballot is sent back, it has to be checked against your official signature. And the Postal Service has a favorable historical record for being able to handle surges in demand. We’re talking about maybe on average two extra pieces of mail in one household; I believe the Postal Service can handle that. And for folks concerned, you can hand-deliver your ballot. We have a drop box in the Governmental Center drive [pictured] that is monitored with 24/7 video surveillance and our offices are open Monday-Friday 8am-5pm.
Ticker: When will we know the results? Even if there’s a day or week or month delay in national results, we could learn local results instantly, correct?
Marentette: It is very possible, yes. People just need to know we’re dealing with limited bandwidth. I am sincere when I say we will do our best job, but this isn’t a race. Now a possible curveball is that a Court Of Claims judge recently ruled that ballots postmarked on or before Election Day but received as much as 14 days after the election have to be counted. If that stands and the spread between candidates or races is less than the number of outstanding absentee ballots, the delay could be at least a couple of weeks, with potential for legal challenges. I always want to count as many votes as possible, but the shifting deadlines and rulings just need to be made clear so everybody knows the rules.
Ticker: What percentage of your job four years ago was election-related and what percent now?
Marentette: I’ll say typically for the election we focus about three months before. Now I have team members who are 100 percent focused on the election and all of our temporary folks are 100 percent. For me, probably for three months leading up it would be around 15-25 percent of my overall time, but it builds to be 100 percent closer to Election Day.
Ticker: What else is your office working on beyond elections?
Marentette: Well, for instance we’ve got adult use marijuana, and I’m involved in three lawsuits with respect to that. We also have new financial software, and one of my responsibilities is to sign off on literally every penny of the $145 million of the city’s expenditures. And definitely during these times with respect to COVID, there are a lot more touch points; more meetings, questions, concerns among commissioners, staff, business owners, residents…so I help them navigate their way to a solution.
Ticker: Any last words directly to Traverse City voters?
Marentette: A few nuts and bolts: If you vote a straight party ticket, the party voted will be the “default,” except for those candidates you voted for in a different party. Reminding people to track their ballots online. Reminding people they can register online or by mail until October 19 and then right through Election Night at our office.
Ticker: Assuming you’re planning to have no sleep for 36 hours or so on Election Day…
Marentette: Yes. Thankfully this year the city commission is not having a meeting the night before. But yes, planning to go sleepless for about 36 hours straight.