How early voting works in Detroit: Don’t mail yo...

How early voting works in Detroit: Don’t mail your ballot and everything else to know

With less than two weeks left until Election Day, you can still vote early in Detroit. Here's what to know about absentee voting and what to do instead of mailing your ballot.

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With less than two weeks left until Election Day, early voting in Detroit is in full swing. Any Michigan voter can use an absentee ballot to cast their vote before Nov. 3 — and 1.5 million voters already have — but this close to the deadline, ballots should not be returned by mail.

The unprecedented surge of absentee voting comes after the passage of a 2018 ballot proposal that removed restrictions on who was allowed to request an absentee ballot in Michigan. Concerns about the risk of COVID-19 exposure at the polls have only increased interest in early voting.

At the same time, the U.S. Postal Service has suffered delays due to coronavirus and operational changes since Postmaster General Louis DeJoy took office, making it critical that voters know how to return their absentee ballot on-time. Officials say that this close to Election Day, you should not return your ballot by mail. Instead, you can return it in-person to your clerk’s office or a drop box. Though late-arriving ballots have been the subject of court cases in the last few months, the latest ruling maintains previous law that states Michigan ballots cannot be counted if they arrive at the clerk’s office by mail after 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

In Detroit, an analysis by The Washington Post found that only 70.9% of first-class mail (including election mail) was delivered on time for the week ending Oct. 9. Statewide, the on-time rate was 85% to 87%.

“Voters should not risk possible postal delays this close to the deadline,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said this week.

Detroit, and the state at large, have introduced new early voting options. The city installed 30 drop boxes for completed ballots across the city and opened 23 satellite voting locations, where you can vote early as well as register to vote.

Keep reading for answers to all your questions about how to vote before Election Day, including registering to vote, returning your ballot and what to do if you make a mistake on your ballot.

Do you still have questions about voting in Detroit? Our complete voter guide walks you through voting at the polls, filling out your ballot and more. And if there are more things you need to know, send your questions to Detour Detroit by filling out this quick form and we will work to get you answers. 

Can I still register to vote?

Yes. You must register in-person at your clerk’s office or, in Detroit, at a satellite voting center.

You must provide proof of residency, which is a document with your name and current address. Paper or electronic documents are acceptable. Accepted proof of residency documents include: 

  • a Michigan driver’s license or state ID card, 
  • a utility bill, a bank statement, 
  • a paycheck, 
  • a government check or 
  • any other government document.

You will receive a receipt of your voter registration. If you don’t immediately vote when you register, as is most common when registering in person after Oct. 19., you should bring your receipt with you when you go to vote.

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Where is my clerk’s office?

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office is located at 2978 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, 48235. The phone number is (313) 224-3260.

Hours: Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Outside of Detroit, find your clerk’s office location and contact information by entering your address here

Voting early (absentee, by mail or ‘at home’)

Can I vote absentee? 

Yes, any registered Michigan voter can vote absentee. All Michigan voters now have the option to vote early, before Election Day. (Previously, you needed a reason to do so.)

What is the difference between voting absentee, voting by mail and voting at home?

Voting absentee, voting by mail and voting at home are different names for voting without physically going to the polls on Election Day. 

President Donald Trump has made a false distinction between absentee voting and mail-in voting, claiming with no evidence that the latter presents opportunities for widespread theft and fraud. He specifically criticized Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in September after errors were reported in ballots for some state voters who are overseas, but Benson said the mistakes were the result of “programmer error” and “computer glitch,” and were identified and addressed. 

Here’s more background from the National Conference of State Legislatures on why you may have seen different terminology like “mailed ballots,” “by-mail ballots” or “vote-by-mail ballots.” The Michigan Secretary of State’s office primarily uses the term “absentee ballot.” They also use “vote at home.” In Michigan and most states, any registered voter can vote absentee.

How do I request an absentee ballot, and what is the deadline?

Voting rights advocates urged voters to request their absentee ballots by mid-September if doing so by mail or online. This close to Election Day, you should request (and receive) your absentee ballot in person at your clerk’s office or a satellite voting center in Detroit through 4 p.m., Nov. 2, then vote in the same visit. 

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How do I return my absentee ballot, and what is the deadline?

Once you receive and fill out your absentee ballot, you can return it at a 24/7 ballot drop box or to your clerk’s office through 8 p.m. on Election Day. It’s too late to safely mail your ballot to be sure it arrives on time.

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I have to sign my absentee ballot envelope, right?

Yes, you have to sign your absentee ballot envelope on the indicated line before you return it, and your clerk will review your signature to see if it matches the one they have on file. More than 800 absentee ballots in Michigan, including 46 in Detroit, were not counted in the Aug. 3 primary election due to signature mismatches. A new law signed in October now requires clerks to attempt to contact voters to correct signature errors before their ballots can be thrown out. Read more about how clerks match signatures. If you forgot to sign your ballot that you already returned, you can still spoil it — see below.

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Do I need a stamp if I return my absentee ballot by mail?

In Detroit, voters do not need a stamp for their absentee ballot if they are mailing it from within the United States. The Secretary of State set aside $2 million to reimburse clerks for postage. 

Will my absentee ballot be counted if it arrives in the mail after Election Day? 

No. Your ballot must arrive at your clerk’s office by 8 p.m. on Nov. 3 to be counted, no matter when it was sent or postmarked, according to a court ruling.

On Oct. 16, the state Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that would have allowed ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 to be counted if they arrived up to two weeks after Election Day.

Where are the satellite voting centers in Detroit, and how do I use them? 

There are 23 satellite voting centers in Detroit. If you are registered to vote in Detroit, you can vote early or on Election Day at any of the centers, no matter where in the city you live. At the satellite voting centers, you can register to vote, request an absentee ballot, and return your absentee ballot. 

Satellite voting centers include the clerk’s office, recreation centers and other sites. They are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. until Election Day. (The one exception is the satellite voting site at Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, which is closed on weekends, according to the voter education initiative DetroitVotes2020.com.) On Election Day, satellite voting centers are open the same hours as the polls, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Here is a map, which also shows drop boxes:

Map via the Detroit Elections Department. View it in your browser here, or see locations in a list here

How do I use a ballot drop box in Detroit?

Voters registered in Detroit can return their absentee ballot by placing it in a drop box. Drop boxes are open 24/7 until 8 p.m. on Election Day. There are 30 in Detroit (23 at the same sites as the satellite voting centers above, as well as seven more).

Find a ballot drop box in a city outside of Detroit by entering your address on the Michigan Voter Information Center portal’s clerk lookup — if your city has drop boxes, they should be listed under your clerk’s contact information.  

Who is allowed to return my absentee ballot?

Michigan election law allows absentee voters to seek assistance in returning their ballots from a mail-handler, their clerk, an assistant to the clerk, a person living in the household or a member of the immediate family. 

On Oct. 16, the state Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that would have expanded who can help absentee voters deliver their ballots, just between Oct. 30 and Nov. 3. That expansion is no longer applicable as it was reversed with the new court ruling.

How can I track my absentee ballot? 

You can track the status of your absentee ballot: whether your request has been received, whether your ballot has been mailed to you and finally whether your ballot has been received by your clerk. Track your ballot by entering your voter information at the Michigan Voter Information Center.   

Detroit voters can also use BallotTrax, a third-party tool that tracks ballots using USPS Intelligent Mail Barcode data combined with voter information provided by the city clerk. In theory, BallotTrax can provide additional information about your ballot’s status — including if it has been delivered to you or accepted by your clerk’s office. However, in the August primary — the first time the city offered the BallotTrax service — some voters found incomplete or inconsistent information via BallotTrax. If you have problems while using BallotTrax, please let us know

Spoiling your ballot and absentee voting troubleshooting 

What do I do if I already submitted my absentee ballot but want to change my vote? 

You can go to the clerk’s office to sign a written request to spoil your first absentee ballot and request a new one until 10 a.m. on Nov. 2. 

What if I received an absentee ballot but it has an error or I make a mistake?

First, don’t throw it out. You can contact or go to the clerk’s office to spoil your first absentee ballot and request a new one until 4 p.m., Nov. 2. Save your original ballot and bring it with you if possible. You can also go to your polling place on Election Day and complete a form to vote — again, bring the original absentee ballot if possible. 

What if I received my absentee ballot but would rather vote at the polls on Election Day? 

Save your absentee ballot and bring it with you when you go to vote at your polling place and surrender it. You will then be issued a new ballot that you can use to vote. If you lose your absentee ballot, you can still vote at the polls and will have to sign a form. 

Can I still vote if I requested an absentee ballot but it never arrives? 

Yes. You can contact or go to your clerk’s office to cancel your first absentee ballot and request a new one until 4 p.m., Nov. 2. You can also go to your polling place on Election Day, tell a poll worker you didn’t receive your absentee ballot and then complete a form to vote. 

What if I returned my absentee ballot by mail but I’m worried it will not arrive in time? 

If you mailed your ballot you can track it at the state site (as well as with BallotTrax for Detroit voters). If it isn’t showing as received, you can go to your clerk’s office and ask to spoil your original absentee ballot, then be given a new one to vote. The deadline is 4 p.m. Nov. 2.

Voting security

Is absentee voting secure?

Though there are more people voting absentee, processing absentee ballots is not new for Michigan clerks, and the state has introduced policies to handle new issues.

“We have worked to ensure every citizen has a right to vote absentee in Michigan and have implemented multiple levels of secure protocols and best practices that have been time-tested over decades in other states,” Benson said. “That’s why we can say with confidence that only valid absentee ballots will be counted, and they will be tabulated by bipartisan pairs of election workers trained to ensure votes are tallied without political bias and in accordance with elections law.”

According to WDET, there have been five total documented cases of attempted voter fraud in Michigan in the last decade, and only two involved absentee voting.

Are Detroit’s ballot drop boxes secure?

Ballot drop boxes are secured according to guidance from the Bureau of Elections, Michigan Secretary of State spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer told Detour. Those stipulations include securely bolting or locking drop boxes to the ground or other stationary objects, placing them in well-lit, public locations and monitoring as necessary. All Detroit boxes have video surveillance.

Drop boxes must be emptied daily at a minimum.

“Only the clerk, deputy clerk or an authorized assistant of the clerk can empty drop boxes,” Wimmer wrote in an email. “Any other staff coming into contact with the ballots will be trained on maintaining chain of custody.”

In Lansing, officials had issues with two drop boxes that were not locking and closing as expected. Those issues were identified and the boxes were closed for maintenance or resecured. 

Filling out your ballot

Where can I preview my ballot before I vote? 

Any Michigan voter can enter their details on the Michigan Voter Information Center to see their sample ballot.  

What’s on my ballot?

Here’s a breakdown of what’s on the Detroit ballot:

Partisan section

  • President & Vice President of the United States
  • United States Senator (see Detour’s coverage of the Senate race here)
  • Representative in Congress
  • Representative in State Legislature
  • Member of the State Board of Education
  • Regent of the University of Michigan
  • Trustee of Michigan State University
  • Governor of Wayne State University
  • Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney
  • Wayne County Sheriff
  • Wayne County Clerk
  • Wayne County Treasurer
  • Wayne County Register of Deeds
  • Wayne County Commissioner

Nonpartisan section

  • Justice of Michigan Supreme Court (see Detour’s coverage of the judicial races here)
  • Judge of Court of Appeals District 1, incumbent
  • Judge of Circuit Court, 3rd circuit, incumbent
  • Judge of Circuit Court, 3rd circuit, non-incumbent (see Detour’s coverage of the judicial races here)
  • Judge of Circuit Court, 3rd circuit, incumbent, partial term ending 1/1/23
  • Judge of Wayne County Probate Court, incumbent
  • Judge of District Court, 36th District, incumbent
  • Judge of District Court, 36th District, incumbent, partial term ending 1/1/23
  • Detroit Public Schools Board Member

Proposal Section

How do I fill out my ballot?

Make sure to fill out the front and back of your ballot. To make your selection, fill in the circle entirely without going outside the lines in blue or black ink. 

Make sure to select only as many options as the instructions say for each section — some races have multiple open positions, so you can select more than one candidate. For example, you can only select one presidential candidate, but you can vote for up to three candidates in the Detroit school board race. 

Your vote will still count if you picked fewer than the maximum number of selections allowed. (For example, if you only selected one or two candidates for the Detroit school board.) You can also skip individual races or sections of the ballot and the rest of your votes will still be counted. 

How do I vote a ‘straight party ticket,’ or for all candidates of one party? 

There are three sections of the ballot: partisan, nonpartisan and proposals. For the first section, you can select a political party to automatically vote for the candidates of that party in each of the partisan races. You can only select one party: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, U.S. Taxpayers, Working Class, Green or Natural Law. Or, you can make your selections individually for each race in that section. 

In the nonpartisan section and proposal section, you will still need to make individual selections even if you choose to vote a straight party ticket. 

I have more questions. Who should I ask? 

Detour Detroit wants to make sure you have all the information you need to vote safely and confidently. Fill out this quick form if you still have a question and we will work to answer it. 

You can also text DETVOTES to 73224 to access Outlier Media’s texting hotline with voting questions, and check out the Michigan Voting Know Your Rights guide.

More Detroit elections coverage from Detour:

Everything to know about early voting in Detroit
Here are all of Detroit’s ballot drop boxes and satellite voting centers
How accessible is voting in Detroit?
Does Detroit have enough poll workers?

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl