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Voting amid a pandemic: Marquette city officials prepare for influx of absentee ballots, explain process

Jason Ricker and Jan Ricker of Marquette voted at the YMCA of Marquette County along Fair Avenue in Marquette in the August primary election. They were prepared with masks and received their ÒI votedÓ stickers upon leaving. With the November general election fast approaching, the city of Marquette is preparing for an influx of absentee ballots and aiming to inform voters about changes to the process due to COVID-19. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — With the November general election fast approaching, city of Marquette election officials are preparing for an influx of absentee ballots and aiming to inform voters about changes to the process due to COVID-19.

City officials say for those who have already applied for absentee voting, ballots will be sent out later this month. Residents can expect to receive them around early October.

“We’re trying to explain these timelines to people and trying to explain how our process is going to be different than it has been in the past,” Marquette city clerk Kyle Whitney said. “We want people to know what the best way is to get this stuff back to us.”

The state of Michigan provides an option for residents to receive an absentee voter application ahead of every election. Whitney said the number of Marquette residents on that list has increased from about 1,200-1,300 in March to roughly 5,200-5,300 now.

“It’s something that is expanding greatly,” he said. “Numbers have bloomed. We have staffing up in our office for it. And in the middle of all of it, we’re still in a global pandemic.”

Marquette City Hall remains closed to the public due to the pandemic, but city officials are working to accommodate election-related business by appointment.

“We used to get hundreds of people in the door bringing their ballots back,” Whitney said. “That’s not something as easy as it used to be with the restrictions. Now, you can go online to our website and schedule an appointment, otherwise our phone number is on the door. We’ll do our best if you come to the door. And weather permitting, we’ll go outside and deliver your application or ballot to you.”

With controversy surrounding the U.S. Postal Service and the legitimacy of mail-in voting, Whitney wants to assure Marquette residents that the city is using the protocols necessary to prevent against someone’s ballot disappearing or someone casting a vote twice.

“Michigan has been doing absentee balloting in some form for a long time now,” he said. “As a nation, we’ve spent 250 years refining the voting process. People always come out of the woodwork to help us out on election day and to make sure everybody can vote who wants to, but not more than once.

“We have new processes in place for absentee (voting,) but it’s largely the same process. If you’re verifying your information and paperwork correctly, following the state and federal requirements, and your signatures match — each ballot number is assigned to individuals in the community– there’s a process through which you can replace that ballot, but it’s now illegal to have a new ballot. We’re sort of gatekeepers on that side of things.

“If we get two ballots back, that’s a red flag immediately. Prior to them getting tabulated, it immediately triggers that someone is trying to return that ballot.

“It’s never happened here, we’ve never had an issue with it. And rarely have we even heard of something similar to that. If someone sends a ballot back to us, and their signature matches the signature on their profile and application, we log it as being returned and send it off to be tabulated.”

For those who are still skeptical regarding mailing their ballots, the city also has its traditional drop box at Marquette City Hall, which is located at 300 W. Baraga Avenue across from St. Peter Cathedral.

In addition, a second drop box will be put in place outside the entrance to the city’s Municipal Service Center at 1100 Wright St. That drop box will be available by the time ballots are mailed out.

Residents can use these drop boxes to return both absentee voter applications and ballots, and both will be under video surveillance.

The city will also be setting up a secondary office at the Northern Center on the campus of Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

The temporary office is currently slated to open Oct. 5 and officials hope to have it open 20 hours per week until the day before the election. Residents can visit this office without an appointment and register to vote or request an absentee ballot. It will also be used as an additional location where applications and ballots can be returned.

In-person voting is still an option as well. For those choosing to exercise their right by heading to the polls on Nov. 3, the city has taken the necessary steps to ensure the safety of its volunteers and voters at the polling sites, Whitney said.

“We had a low turnout in our precincts in August,” Whitney said. “We’re not exactly sure what to expect for November. We have floor markings to indicate six feet of distance, and all of our election workers will be wearing face coverings or shields again. We have Plexiglas barriers on tables to separate points of contact between workers and the public.

“Workers will have gloves, and we already have ‘a billion’ sanitizing wipes and will be getting ‘a billion’ more. We have a lot more pens and we’re going to be sanitizing them between voters along with sanitizing the secrecy sleeves and spacing out the booths.”

Whitney added that while masks are encouraged and will be available on-site to voters who would like one, the city can’t require voters to wear one.

“Election workers have to wear masks, but Gov. (Whitmer) said it doesn’t apply if you’re voting. We can’t require a voter to wear one, but we highly suggest it and request it. Masks will be available for voters if anyone forgets to bring one and wants one. But it’s not required.”

To schedule an appointment at Marquette City Hall for election-related business, visit www.marquettemi.gov/voterregistration or call 906-228-0430.

To view state of Michigan voting information, including the status of your absentee ballot and other information regarding your precinct or polling location, visit www.Michigan.gov/vote.

Ryan Spitza can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. His email address is rspitza@miningjournal.net.

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