Behind the Ballot

Behind the Ballot

(Crystal A. Proxmire)

For the small percentage of people who show up to vote (in 2009 it was 14.01%, in 2008 it was  63.92%, and in 2007 it was 20.82%), it’s a pretty simple process.  They walk in, show their ID, step in a booth, make their choices, slide the ballot in the box, slap an “I Voted” sticker on their shirt and leave.

Others get more active, and spend time and money getting the word out about their favorite candidates, or running for office themselves.  They spend Election Day outside of poll locations (100 ft. away from the entrance by law), holding signs and asking for support.  The evening might end in an election party, with candidates and supporters watching the news and the web for results of who won.

But for the team of City employees and poll workers behind the scenes, Election Day means two and a half months of meticulous planning and work, all building up to a dawn-to long after dusk in day full of dealing with people, machines, bureaucracy and immense pressure to do everything right.

The Ferndale City Clerk’s Office seems to have it down; with no noteworthy problems in the three years that Cherilynn Tallman has been running the department. She, Deputy Clerk Marne McGrath, and Kerre O’Neil start preparing for the election nine weeks beforehand, following a detailed checklist of procedures that is in line with Federal, State and County regulations.

The Ferndale 115 News interviewed Tallman about her job so that we could share with you the processes behind the ballot.  We also went to a public testing of the election equipment, and spoke with Carl Weiler, a Ferndale resident who is passionate about improving the voting process and doing his part to prevent voter fraud.  We also learned some new things that people may not realize about voting, including the requirements for a write in vote to be tallied.

At the end of this article there are resources listed, to give you more information about voting in this area.  Mind you, this is some pretty boring stuff.  As you get about half way through just keep in mind that you only have to spend 10 minutes of your life reading about this stuff, whereas municipal clerks around Michigan live and breathe this process for at least  two and a half months each election.


Nine weeks prior to the election the process officially starts.  This year the deadline to file as a candidate and the deadline to file petitions for ballot questions was Aug. 10, 2010.

By Sept. 18, 2010 the Clerks had to prepare a test deck of ballots for each precinct.  They also had to order the ballots for Election Day and for Absentee Votes, plus all necessary supplies.

Aug. 24 was the deadline for Council to place a question on the ballot.

On Aug. 10 the Clerks had to organize and remove previous election specific information from binders in preparation for next election.

Sept. 3 was the deadline for the State to place a question on the ballot.

By Sept. 6 Tallman and her team needed to have created a chart of predetermined results to create a test deck of ballots for the voting machine.  During the public test, there needs to be a ballot that represents each possible outcome and each possible mistake, to make sure that the voting machines are working correctly. The outcome chart and the 49 test ballots for each precinct took Tallman over ten hours to make.  The Clerk’s Office also spent at least six hours testing the machines before the public test.

By that date they also had to use voter registration numbers to find out the number of privacy screens (dictated by State law, based on the number of registered voters in the precinct), secrecy sleeves, tables and chairs for each precinct.  Tallman also had to send letters to each polling location letting them know that an election is scheduled, and asking them to provide the appropriate number of tables and chairs.

Other tasks around this time include: proofreading ballots from Oakland County, remove previous elections precinct lists from binders, and moving the ballots from the ballot cans to ballot bags, which are sealed and labeled with a destruction date.  The Clerk must also do a preliminary accuracy test and complete an Optical Scan Tabulator Preparation Certificate and fax it to the County.

On Sept. 15 someone from the Clerk’s office sent in a notice to The Daily Tribune to announce the close of Registration, to be published Sept. 22.

Absentee voter ballots were sent on Sept. 18.  Precinct Inspectors were appointed between Sept. 23 – Oct. 12, and letters had to be sent to each of them with more information.

The last day to register to vote was Oct. 4.  On that day there was also a letter sent to the local Board of Canvassers, and the Unity-Election Definition was loaded onto a computer in the office in preparation of Mock Election Day, when Oakland County’s reporting software is tested.

On Oct. 6 they charged, tested, completed and sealed the AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminal Preparation Checklist and Test Certification Form.  On the 7th they created voter registration cards, filing the Master cards and mailing out the ID cards to those that have registered by the deadline for the current election.

On Oct. 11 Tallman was given the list of inspectors for City Attorney Daniel Christ to sign off on.

On Oct. 13 the Clerk set up the publishing of the public accuracy test, which was held on Oct. 26. At this time she also made arrangements to publish the Notice of Election.

On Oct. 14 lists of poll workers were sent to the respective parties involved in the election.

On Oct. 18 the Clerk’s Department sent a letter to The Ferndale Police Department to request a Sergeant of Arms and an officer to transport Election materials from City Hall to Oakland County.  That same day they organized supplies, completed forms, set up laptops for Election School and verified that reference materials in binders to be accurate and have the most current documentation.

On Oct. 21 the Clerk’s office held a mock election to test the processes involved.

Oct. 22 was the deadline for valid write-in candidates.

On Oct. 25 they contacted the Curling Club to have the windows covered, verified that all previous election data had been scrubbed from laptops, updated virus protection, contacted the DPW to verify that a truck is available to transport election machines to and from the poll locations, and informed them of the number of privacy screens and secrecy sleeves needed to be delivered.

The Public Accuracy Test was held on Oct. 26 at 10 am.  This involved Deputy Clerk McGrath running through a test batch of ballots openly so that anyone from the public could watch.

The Ferndale 115 News was there, along with one resident who tends to make an appearance.  Carl Weiler is a former poll worker who says he believes strongly in public involvement in the political system.  “I don’t have any problem with the way things are done in Ferndale.  Marne and Cherilynn do a great job.  But there are cases of election fraud, and there could be a virus on the machine,” Weiler said.  “The purpose of the Public Accuracy Test is so that members of the public can make sure the machines in their city are working properly.  I wish more people would know how important this is.”

On Oct. 27 the Clerks had to call the Post Office and arrange for a special late delivery time for the Saturday before the election, because that is when absentee registration ends.

On Oct. 28 the Polling Chairs took their oath of office and poll workers participated in Election School training.

On Saturday, Oct 30, the City Clerk’s Office was open to issue and receive absentee ballots. It was also the last day absentee ballots could be sent to voters via mail.  That day the Clerks were busy building and packing supply carts, creating EPB accounts and exporting voter data from QVF to a flash drive.  They also placed the specified number of ballots for each precinct into a Titan Ballot Security Bag, sealed the bags and recorded the seal numbers.



On Election Day the Clerk’s Office staff arrives at the office  by 6:00 am. Poll workers must be at the Precincts at 6am to get set up.  The Chairs must swear in the election workers, and all day long there is a careful set of procedures that must be followed.  The steps involved in voting help ensure that each person’s vote counts.

“We ask voters to please be patient, and expect to wait in line,” Tallman said.  “Inspectors are doing their jobs based on laws the voter may not be aware of.  It’s an extremely long day for a very low amount of pay.  They deserve our respect and patience.”

Poll workers receive a $10 stipend for training and a flat $125 for the entire Election Day.  The chairperson at each precinct gets $150.  They work from 6am until around 10pm.  The polls close at 8, but the Inspectors must go through specific processes to close down the poll location and protect the ballots.

The Clerk’s Office staff typically work until around 11pm, although Tallman recalled that one year during a the 2008 Presidential Election they were there until nearly 4am.

In addition to passing out the ballots and tracking who votes, poll workers must also make sure that campaigning laws are followed at the poll locations.


Voters have the right to privacy, and to not feel pressured at the polls.

When a voter comes to a poll location they may be greeted by candidates and others campaigning.  These people must be 100 feet or more from the entrance to the poll location.  People are not permitted to bring campaign literature, or wear campaign materials within that same distance.

Once a voter has signed in, there are given their ballot in a secrecy sleeve, and sent to a space with privacy screens. After voting part of the numbered ballot stub is separated from the ballot to protect the voter’s right to a secret ballot be counted, and the main part of the now-anonymous ballot, the part with the votes on it, is slid by the voter into an optical scan machine.  The machine checks for errors and duplication.  If there is a mistake it rejects the ballot and a poll worker standing away from the machine will give instructions to the voter.  If the ballot is accepted, the machine diverts it to one compartment if it is a standard vote, and to a different compartment if there are write ins.


One thing many people don’t understand is that most write-in votes do not count.  According to The League of Women Voters website “Under Michigan law (2006), in most cases, a write-in vote will not be counted unless the individual receiving the vote has filed a declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate. This provision eliminates the need for election officials to count frivolous votes, such as for cartoon characters or individuals who have no intention to serve if elected.” The deadline for a write-in candidate to file the declaration of intent was 4 p.m. on October 22.

For example, in the 2009 election for Mayor, Craig Covey got 108 votes (91.53%) and there were 10 write-in votes, However, since no one had filed as a write-in candidate, those votes were disregarded.

Understanding election law and getting involved in the political process can help people get the most out of their voting experience.


To view the ballot that will be before you on Election Day, go to  This site also will list all the candidates with links to their websites.

To see other Frequently Asked Questions about voting in Michigan, go to,1607,7-127-1633_11619_38093-123989–,00.html

For more information on the voting machines used in Oakland County, go to,1607,7-127-15719_15730-163261–,00.html.

The League of Women Voters offers a nonpartisan guide, as well as plenty of other information on voting at

To see election results as they happen, see the Oakland County Clerk’s site at


There are many political races taking place, which you can read about by going to the State of Michigan site, pulling up your sample ballot, and researching the Candidate’s websites.

The City is also facing a vote to change the City Charter to streamline management by funneling department communication and command through the City Manager.  The exact wording is below, and more information can be found by reading our previous article at


This charter amendment would provide that the supervision, direction and control of all Divisions and Departments of the City, including the Division of Safety and the Division of Law and Records, shall be under the supervision, direction and control of the Manager.


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