ST. JOSEPH — Key staff changes and the COVID-19 pandemic have created election challenges in the Berrien County Clerk’s office, including a slight delay in the availability of absentee ballots.
County Clerk Sharon Tyler told county commissioners Thursday that absentee ballots were not ready on Thursday – the first day they could legally be made available to voters.
Tyler said she was told by the company printing the ballots that they were on their way to Berrien County from Detroit on Thursday afternoon. She hoped to be able to sign them off to the local clerks today.
“I’m hoping people are patient with us and understanding, because I would rather have an accurate ballot than an incorrect ballot,” she said when contacted after the meeting.
She told county commissioners that part of the problem is that two election administrators have resigned in the past few weeks and the new election administrator needs time to learn the job.
Compounding the problem this year, she said, is that the state Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions later than normal due to the pandemic and then made last minute changes on top of that.
Then, she said that her election staff kept getting locked out of voter files that they needed from the state.
“We couldn’t even access them to work on them,” she said. “...It’s been a long and bumpy road.”
For these reasons, she said she wants to contract with Jason Watts, former Allegan County election administrator, to help her office through the end of the year as an election coordinator. She said she’s already brought him onboard part time and that her staff is drawing up a contract for him.
“I hope you approve that because I’m very much in need of election expertise at this time,” she said.
Tyler said that even during normal times, there’s barely enough time between the August primary and the November general election to get the ballots ready.
She said she supports state Sen. Aric Nesbitt’s previous bill that would have moved the state’s primary to June so the clerks have more time to put together the November ballot. Nesbitt introduced that bill in 2016 when he was a state representative. It never made it out of committee.
Meanwhile, Tyler said she’s preparing for a long night on election night, in part because they expect two-thirds of the votes to be cast by absentee ballot.
She told commissioners that she doesn’t expect all of the votes to be tallied until at least 10 a.m. the day after the election. And she said she’s already looking for space for recounts after the election.
Because of the social distancing required due to the pandemic, she said she’s talking with staff at Lake Michigan College to see if she can use any of their larger spaces if there’s a recount.
Tyler said after the meeting that everyone needs to thank their local clerks.
“I know everybody’s stressing out during this time,” she said. “Don’t beat them up. They’re doing the best they can.”
Tyler said that the deadline for people to register as write-in candidates is 4 p.m. Oct. 23. Unless the person is signing up as a write-in for a county office, she said they need to register with their local clerks.