Your clerk’s records indicate that your Absentee Ballot was not counted in the August Primary election. DON’T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKES FOR THE GENERAL ELECTION ON NOVEMBER 3, 2020.
That was the message printed on one side of a flyer mailed to East Lansing resident Helen McGuirk.
One the reverse side was information on how to properly sign the return envelope and return ballots suggesting that if McGuirk followed these instructions for the Nov. 3 election, her ballot would have a better chance of being counted.
McGuirk, who returned her ballot for the Aug. 4 primaries, was alarmed that her vote had supposedly not been counted. She called the City Clerk’s office and confirmed that her primary ballot had been received and counted.
So why did she receive this warning?
Mark Grebner, a County Commissioner and political consultant, hypothesized about what might have happened.
Although the contents of all ballots are secret — no one knows who you voted for — the act of voting is public. For a small fee, one can download the tracking information for absentee ballots in Michigan from the Secretary of State. The list contains information, like when the application for an absentee ballot is received, when the ballot mailed out, when it was returned and when it was counted.
Grebner looked up McGuirk and discovered that she had originally applied in March for a ballot to be mailed to her previous address in Lansing but then moved to East Lansing in July. McGuirk then voted in East Lansing.
The information the Grebner can view is incomplete, so he offered an educated guess: It is possible that applying for an absentee ballot in Lansing and then not submitting one there made it appear as though McGuirk had not voted, even though she had in East Lansing.
Grebner explained that various “get out the vote” organizations download these lists from the Secretary of State and then contact voters who were interested in voting but didn’t ultimately vote. According to Grebner, a proponent of getting out the vote, these mailings aim to put social pressure on voters, trying to shame people into voting.
He explained that “Helen McGuirk’s situation is a lot less alarming in reality than it seems on the surface… I don’t think it’s the tip of an iceberg; more like an ice cube all by itself.”
But for McGuirk, relieved by Grebner’s explanation, the experience was initially alarming.
“When I saw the flyer in the mail my first reaction was to trust the information. Since I did absentee voting for the August primary, and it is a process that is relatively new in Michigan, I immediately thought I must have done something wrong with the voting process,” said McGuirk, who feared that maybe her signature did not perfectly match.
She appreciated that the City Clerk’s office verified that her ballot had been counted, but she wished that the Secretary of State’s system was more user friendly. It was difficult to access information for her Aug. 4 ballot there, she said.
Relieved that her ballot was counted, McGuirk grew concerned again.
“My next thought was when they pulled public information on voting my data point must have been abnormal, and the data was not properly or fully cleaned before the mass flyer campaign began,” she said.
McGuirk is glad that she got an explanation, telling ELi that “I think if I hadn’t asked questions, I would always feel unsure of the election process, to the point where I wouldn’t put effort into voting in future elections.”
“I do understand and agree with the concept behind this flyer. I just don’t think it was executed well, nor do I think it should be the responsibility of partisan groups to inform the public of their voting history,” she continued.
Grebner described McGuirk’s situation as highly unusual and not something a get out the vote group would usually look for. It’s time consuming work to catch only a handful of unusual cases.
Furthermore, he emphasized that voting-related stories that seem unusual and can cause fear often have similarly simple explanations that are not cause for concern.
To McGuirk, the situation emphasized the need for “non-partisan online access to their voting history, specifically, if a ballot was received and counted.”
Michigan voters can track their Nov. 3 ballots here.
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