Berrien County Commissioners talk election law changes

Published 1:31 pm Thursday, August 24, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — The 2024 election cycle is still months away, but Berrien County Commissioners are taking steps to get ready for the changes being instituted as the result of election law changes last year. 

Berrien County Clerk Sharon Tyler presented information about the changes coming with last year’s passage of Proposal 2 which among other things requires that early voting be offered to people in advance of state and federal elections. 

She told commissioners that people will still have the opportunity to vote in person or vote absentee, but will now be able to vote early before a state or federal election. She came to Thursday’s meeting because the county just received news of a state grant available to defray the costs of instituting early voting. 

Commissioners followed up on her report by approving a resolution applying for funding from the Michigan Department of State and the Michigan Bureau of Elections to pay for items such as new equipment and additional staffing. Tyler estimated that instituting early voting will cost the county nearly $238,000.  

The quick action by the county board to apply for the Early Voting Grant occurred because Tyler said the grant application deadline is Sept. 8 and the county board is not scheduled to meet next week. She said that the state has set aside $30 million to fund the grant program which she called a “drop in the bucket” since the law change affects 83 counties. 

Tyler told commissioners that she and the election staff are proposing to offer nine days of continuous early in person voting before the three national and state elections next year. The state’s presidential primary is tentatively set for Feb. 27, the regular primary election on Aug. 6 and the general election on Nov. 5. 

She’s proposing an early voting period of Feb. 17-25 before the presidential primary, July 27-Aug. 5 before the regular primary and Oct. 26-Nov. 3 before the general election. Eight hours of voting would be offered each day of early voting. 

She said she’s hoping to get a grant to pay for half of the early voting costs. She said 52 election workers will have to be hired along with 44 poll workers to handle the early voting. In addition, the county will have to buy more tabulators, laptops, scanners, voting booths and signage. 

While local municipalities can operate their own early voting sites or partner with other municipalities to operate joint sites, she’s proposing that the municipalities partner with the county to operate the sites.  

Specifically, she’s proposing to have two early voting sites in the county, one in south county at the former AEP building in Buchanan and one in north county in Benton Township at either Lake Michigan College or the Berrien County Health Department. 

Tyler said she will be coming back to the county board with more details if the county receives the Early Voting Grant. The grant doesn’t require any local match and she said she hopes to defray the remaining costs with funding from local foundations and others. 

Also Thursday, commissioners got a sneak peak of one item expected to be in the 2024 proposed budget. County Administrator Brian Dissette said staff is currently working on the new budget and will be bringing it to the board in the next month or two. The county’s fiscal year starts Jan. 1 and the county board usually approves it in late fall. 

The item that will be in the new budget is Oblique Imagery software for the county’s equalization department. It is expected to cost as much as $305,000 for a six year contract and could be less if local municipalities and other counties go in on the project. The contract would pay for two flights over properties during the six years. 

County Equalization Director Warren Parrish said the new software will be useful for not only his department but also other county departments and local assessors. The software will go beyond the top down images of properties the county now uses to show multiple images of a property from a 45 degree angle. 

He said the software will save time for his staff and local assessors who are now required to visit 20 percent of properties every year. It could also be helpful in emergency situations such as fires where dispatch can pull up building images and direct firefighters to building exits.