Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Michigan native who has secured victories in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire in the Republican presidential primary season, will appear on your Feb. 28 Michigan presidential primary election ballot — but only if you indicate that you want to vote as a Republican.
That’s because state lawmakers again last year designated the state’s 2012 presidential primary election as a closed process, meaning that voters have to declare whether they want the Democratic or Republican ballot when they go to the polls in a few weeks, or when applying for an absentee ballot. An open-and-shut case, right?
Not so, say local elections officials, who are fielding complaints from voters in west Oakland County and elsewhere throughout Oakland’s 910 square miles. The issue, area clerks are saying, is that people aren’t aware that it’s a closed process again this year — much like it was in 2008.
Oakland County Clerk/Register of Deeds Bill Bullard Jr. said that just the name — a “primary election” — is throwing people off-base when it comes to the voting process this time around.
“Most people are going to think this is just like that — you go in the voting booth, and you have a chance to look at both sides,” he said, referring to the “normal” primary elections that are held in August.
He and others in his office last week recorded a public service announcement about the closed process that he said he hopes will be shown in the ramp-up to the primary election that will be held in less than six weeks.
“I’m hearing anecdotes from various people, (Oakland County Elections Division Manager) Joe Rozell and others,” Bullard said. “I talked directly to (Clerk) Holly Brandt in Milford (Township) and she said probably about 10 of the 200 (absentee ballot) applications she got in the mail didn’t include one (party preference) or another.”
And while Bullard, who has been the county’s top elections official for about a year, said that people flubbing up their absentee ballot applications is “a huge burden on local clerks,” it’s even more of a problem when people inadequately complete their ballot at the polls, resulting in spoiled votes.
“If we can let people know in advance, the better,” Bullard said.
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson is working on doing just that, said her spokesman, Fred Woodhams, by issuing news releases in an effort to increase public awareness of the closed primary process, which is similar to what took place four years ago during the presidential primary season.
Yet Woodhams said he’s not personally aware of “any widespread concerns.”
“Probably people might relay those concerns to the local clerk’s office,” he said. “We send out communications to the local clerks to help them be aware of the upcoming election. Already on the ballot application the people will receive, it will provide information on how to do it. Really, for the most part, it will be very similar to four years ago in that it will be a closed primary.”
What follows is a look at how local clerks throughout west Oakland County are responding to the situation.
In Orchard Lake, some voters appear upset by the closed primary election absentee ballot application, according to Clerk Rhonda McClellan.
“I just had one resident yelling that it’s unconstitutional because the person he wanted to vote for wasn’t on the ballot since the candidate wasn’t a Republican or Democrat,” McClellan said. “I told him if he wrote in his candidate it would mean the application was invalid. He would need to vote for his person in November, otherwise he must select one of the two (political) parties.”
The new primary absentee ballot application has also been modified to include a U.S. citizenship question that McClellan said voters tend to skip over and not complete.
McClellan contacted Oakland County for clarification on the process, but learned that she, as the clerk, could not check the box for a voter.
“It wasn’t on the application before and many haven’t completed it, but the application isn’t valid unless the voter physically marks the box. We can’t do that for them,” she said.
The U.S. citizenship question has also been a problem for snowbirds who live out-of-state during the season.
“We mail them (absentee ballot applications), but if there’s a problem, the concern is getting them back in time,” McClellan said.
Many clerks in the lakes area say that, in general, voters forget that during this primary election they must designate a party and then a candidate.
“It’s nothing new, but people tend to forget,” McClellan said.
The majority of Orchard Lake’s absentee applications have already been mailed out. Those voters that come into City Hall are instructed how to complete the application.
“If a voter comes up to the counter, we say the application must be completed entirely, but the others we’re stuck with,” McClellan said.
In Wixom, absentee ballot applications were mailed a little later than anticipated and are beginning to trickle in slowly.
“We’ve only received five applications, so it’s too soon to see if we’re going to experience problems,” said Clerk Cathy Buck. “We’re anticipating that people will check off the correct boxes because we can’t process them until they are completed.”
In Wixom, there is a permanent absentee voter ballot list and these applications are mailed out automatically.
As a measure to ensure that voters are aware of any application changes, staff highlights each new section.
“We’ve highlighted those sections on every application going out in hope that the highlighted boxes get their attention,” Buck said. “People need to check if they want a Republican or Democrat (ballot) and tend to forget about it since they haven’t seen the application for four years.”
In Waterford Township, some voters are voicing opposition to having to declare a party on the primary election ballot.
“There’s not as much voter confusion as voter unhappiness,” said Clerk Kari Vlaeminck. “They don’t want to declare a party, and say it gives up their private vote because they think we’ll know who they’re voting for.”
The township has already send out 2,052 absentee ballot applications; 100 returned applications have been sent back to voters due to the question of citizenship going unanswered.
“Most voters are filling them out completely, but we’ve had to send a handful back and it’s time consuming,” Vlaeminck said. “Right now we’re working on issuing the ballots.”
Like in Wixom, Waterford staff highlighted sections on the presidential primary election absentee ballot application that reflect any changes, so voters are aware.
Those stopping by the township, however, are told in person to complete the application entirely.
“That is so time isn’t wasted going back and forth,” Vlaeminck said.
The Walled Lake Clerk’s office warded off much voter confusion by including a note of what sections need to be completed on the closed presidential primary election absentee ballot application.
“This proactive approach has reduced the number of returned applications,” said Deputy Clerk Tamara Williams.
Five-hundred applications have been mailed out and only six have been returned thus far.
The Clerk’s Office hasn’t received many calls or complaints, except from few who have voiced concern over the type of ballot they are requesting.
“There has been a few calls — less than 10 people — who are concerned about providing what type of ballot they want, either Republican or Democrat,” Williams said. “They are worried that would register them to that party or how they choose would be recorded. We explain it’s against the law to track a preference and that this won’t tie them to the party.”
For example, if a voter wants to vote for a Republican in the Feb. 28 presidential primary election and then for a Democrat seeking another position in August, that is permissible.
“There’s no conflict in voting like that,” she said.
Right now there is little concern that absentee ballot applications will be received in time to get the ballots out, according to Williams.
“If it gets closer to the cut-off (date), which is the Saturday before the election (at) 2 p.m., then I would have to call the voter, but right now I’m not worried,” Williams said.
According to Highland Township Clerk Mary McDonell, her office fields questions from voters during every presidential election.
“Some people forget how (the process) works,” she said. “Sometimes it’s not confusion, (but) rather people get upset that they have to declare a party to get a ballot. They don’t really understand what the process is.”
In response, her office tries to explain how the process works.
“We tell them this is how the parties choose to pick their presidential candidates,” McDonell said.
Nevertheless, the Clerk’s Office receives a handful of absentee ballot applications in each cycle that are marked incorrectly.
“We had some that came in unchecked for which political party they (wanted),” McDonell said. “In that case, we have to contact the voters. If the phone number is listed, we call them. If not, then we have to mail them the application again with a letter.”
The Clerk’s Office receives between 20 and 50 incomplete applications, according to McDonell.
The clerk’s office is also trying to be proactive in catching mistakes ahead of time.
“When people drop off their applications in person, we make sure all the boxes are filled out correctly,” she said. “We also answer questions via e-mail. We try to do as much as we can.”
Commerce Township Clerk Dan Munro said he isn’t sure whether voters are confused over the Feb. 28 presidential primary process or intentionally choosing not to state which party’s ballot they choose to vote.
“Some people may have left the application intentionally blank so as to not have to pick,” he said. “This has caused us to contact a number of voters to request them to be more specific on their ballot applications.”
Nonetheless, he said those absentee ballot applications coming back unchecked have been minimal overall. However, when they do come back without a party preference, the Clerk’s Office contacts the voter either by e-mail, phone, or letter.
In an effort to remind people they have to check a political party preference to receive a ballot, Munro said the township — which also handles elections for the village of Wolverine Lake — has redesigned the absentee ballot application to make the party request more noticeable than on the standard ballot given to them.
“We reconfigured the initial proof we received to make it as prominent as possible,” he said.
White Lake Township Clerk Terry Lilley said the township hasn’t yet had any major issues with voter confusion.
“We’ve had a couple applications that we’ve had to follow up on, but it’s not been a big problem. There’s not been anything we can’t handle,” he said.
Brandt, the Milford Township clerk, said that the township has witnessed a bit of confusion regarding presidential primary absentee ballot applications and that it’s about the same amount as four years ago, during the 2008 primary election cycle.
“There are some people that know what they’re doing and yet they say they don’t want to choose which ballot (Republican or Democrat) and have everyone know what they chose because it’s public record which one people select,” she said. “We try to educate the public and let them know what they have to do so they understand, and we have them tell their friends and neighbors. It’s pretty much word of mouth.”
Brandt added that if there are any errors on an absentee ballot application, the township — which also handles elections for Milford Village — tries to contact the applicant either by phone or e-mail, or mails the application back to the person’s residence requesting completion of any other requirements.
“We try to do it as cheaply as possible,” she said. “We have a permanent (absentee voter) application mailing list. We put the applications in the mail a week and a half ago and we’ve gotten a couple hundred back. We usually send out 1,700 applications.”
The West Bloomfield Township Clerk’s Office is doing what it can to ward off voter confusion involving the primary absentee ballot application process.
The township has posted a link on its website, wbtwp.com, that will lead Internet users to a page requesting an absentee ballot. That page specifically states that applicants must select either a Republican or Democrat ballot when applying for an absentee ballot, and also states the reasons, according to state law, why someone can request an absentee ballot.
The page also contains a link by which an absentee ballot application can be downloaded.
Township Clerk Cathy Shaughnessy said her office’s website has also been overhauled to include a link to information on the 2012 election, including sample ballots, a list of precincts in the township and information on political signs.
“The more information we get out, the less confusion there is,” she said. “We’ve been relatively successful so far. We’ve had a small bit of confusion on the application where a few voters didn’t check the box (to choose a party’s ballot), but we’re getting the word out.”
Shaughnessy added that the office lets people know in the applications that they have to choose a particular party’s ballot.
“We’ve processed close to 4,000 applications already, and we initially sent out applications to 8,500 households,” she said. “If there’s a mistake, we then either call them or send the application back and highlight what they missed, whether it’s a signature or a choice of (party) ballot.”