Oakland County Elections Division to count Orion Twp. absentee ballots
By Jim Newell
ORION TWP. — Just ahead of the Aug. 2 Primary Election, the Orion Township Board of Trustees is assuring residents that the integrity of Orion Township’s elections is of the highest priority.
Township officials also defended the board’s decision to send the township’s absentee voter ballots to the Oakland County Elections Division for processing.
Trustees Brian Birney and Mike Flood and Clerk Penny Shults are on the township’s election commission.
“I share your same concerns, I share your same passion for elections and integrity,” Birney told audience members. “Several years ago, we invested in a high-speed tabulator to do exactly what we didn’t want to happen, and that’s bringing the absentee votes to the county. Now, we were put in a position where we had too. It was not taken lightly. It is not a long-term solution. It is a short-term solution to a problem that exists right now.”
The township board voted unanimously at its June 20 meeting to enter into an agreement “for the purpose of establishing an absentee voter counting board” with the Oakland County Election Division to count Orion Township’s absentee ballots for the Aug. 2 Primary Election, according to the meeting minutes from the June 20 board meeting.
“I know we’re all passionate about elections. It’s important and I hope everyone votes on Aug. 2,” Shults said. “We have representatives from our AV team that will be there (at the absentee ballot counting location) that day as well. And it’s a group of your peers that are counting those ballots and it’s the county that’s overseeing it.”
“Nothing is more important than our elections,” said Flood, who has been on the township’s elections commission for 10 years. “We had a serious problem.”
Flood added that the township’s top election employee in the last election left to work in another facility, and two to three other employees who help with elections.
“It takes years of training and education. There were 54 election laws at the state legislature this past January. Everyday election laws are changing, or trying to change them. You’ve got to stay on top of this stuff.
“We were in a dire need; How are we going to run this election fairly?” Flood said, adding that during the COVID-19 pandemic “numerous” communities had to count absentee ballots “the way that we’re having to do right now.”
The township had already planned to dedicate the board chamber room to counting absentee ballots.
“I have every intention, myself, to bring that back in-house as soon as we can. I’m hoping this is the only election. I can’t promise you that, I don’t know. It’s a huge staffing issue, logistics issue. And, in my opinion, it’s something we had to do to not screw up the elections. I’m not discrediting anyone on our staff, we simply just did not have the hand to be able to do it, as we felt as a commission and as a board, to do it as successfully as we wanted to,” Birney said.
Birney added that the absentee ballots would not be counted in “some random place” but would be counted by the Oakland County Elections Division.
Supervisor Chris Barnett responded to public comments during the board’s meeting Monday on the heels of an email that went out to some residents questioning the board’s decision to send absentee voter counting to the county.
That email, Barnett said, contained inaccurate and misleading information, and appeared to be the impetus for residents to question the board.
Barnett said he knows people are “very passionate” about election integrity, as are he and his fellow board members.
“We want a good, fair election. And I am 100 percent confident that that’s what will happen on Aug. 2 here in Orion Township, and the county,” Barnett said.
Barnett wanted to dispel some misinformation that is being spread in the community, including via an email sent out that had residents riled, and said he talked with the Joseph Rozelle, director of elections, and asked questions about the absentee ballot counting procedures.
“He said it’s Republicans and Democrats. The ballots are under the control of the sheriff – by the way who’s a Republican – when (the ballots) leave our possession, when they leave the building here, until they are opened and counted. Which, (the elections division) wants Republicans and Democrat poll watchers to participate.”
Barnett also suggested that anyone who wants to get involved could volunteer to be poll watchers with the county, or volunteer at Orion Township.
“It was a difficult decision but one that we had to make to get our votes counted and counted accurately,” Barnett said. “I take a lot of pride in this job and every single person up here (on the board) does. And the county is handling the absentee ballots for 20 of the 62 municipalities in Oakland County.”
Oakland County Elections Division will count absentee ballots at the Oakland County Intermediate School District building in Waterford, Barnett said.
Barnett added that the $60,000 that an email claims the township will spend to have Oakland County count Orion Township’s absentee ballots is “1,000 percent inaccurate.”
“Call us and ask us a question. Don’t send out emails making crazy claims that get residents rightfully upset. We’re going to pay the same, or less, if we had our own employees (counting absentee ballots). It’s a fixed hourly rate. It’s a fixed daily rate per employee. We would be paying those people if we had them in this building, we’re going to be paying the county employees that will be doing that (work).”
Treasurer Donni Steele supported the move to have the county count the township’s absentee ballots. Steele is running for state representative of the 54th District as a Republican in the primary.
“I think that the county is quite capable of handling the absentee ballots,” Steele said. “The person in charge of that has run elections in other communities and I was happy with their elections so I figured they would be quite capable of handling ours as well for the absentee ballots.”
Shults also thanked Steele for allowing employees in the treasurer’s office to assist with the election.
“I appreciate you, every single year that I’ve been in office, allowing your team, your staff, to stop what they’re doing and assist my department and run elections,” Shults said. “And that speaks volumes of your commitment to the integrity of the elections.”