Port Huron City Clerk Cyndee Jonseck thought she was going to be a nurse.
But, early in her marriage, as a stay-at-home mom with three young children, life took a left turn and she found herself appointed as the Greenwood Township Clerk.
“The job was part-time and flexible for my kids, so I got appointed and I was the township clerk there for six years,” she said.
She eventually moved on and in 2012 accepted a position as the clerical assistant in the Port Huron City Clerk’s office. A year later she was promoted to assistant city clerk and in 2017, with the retirement of longtime city clerk Sue Childs, Jonseck was again promoted, this time to city clerk.
So instead of caring for patients in a healthcare setting, Jonseck finds herself in a different kind of caretaking role. The city clerk has a wide range of duties. The clerk’s office is responsible for working with families in the purchase of cemetery plots; they serve as a resource for city council members and Jonseck sets the agenda and attends all council meetings to record minutes; they work with the city’s beautification committee; they accept all applications for food peddlers in the city; and they handle applications for liquor licenses, among many other duties.
“We are actually the main phone number to the city,” Jonseck said. “So my staff is very knowledgeable with every aspect of the city. I don’t like to have to transfer people all around. I thrive on providing great customer service. I really do.”
But perhaps the most important caretaking role for Jonseck, along with every city, township and county clerk in the state of Michigan, is the organization and administration of every election held in the city.
Though that used to be one of the more fun aspects of the job, Jonseck said more recently, administering elections has become more difficult.
“Since 2020, it’s become more challenging because there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” she said. “The voter’s perception of what we do has changed. We’ve always had to defend ourselves to some extent, but we got a lot more of that in 2020, and I know a majority of the clerks feel the same way.”
Jonseck said that she welcomes the opportunity to help citizens better understand the way the election process works in our state and local communities, and they follow state election law to the letter.
Jonseck noted that many people are concerned about how absentee ballots are handled, be it concern about their ballot being mailed and arriving safely in the hands of city, or the safety of the ballot drop boxes that the city provides to allow for 24/7 voting convenience for residents. Some people have concerns about their votes being counted properly.
“With absentee ballots, we include information where you can track your ballot,” Jonseck said. “The information is also available on our home page. You can track when your ballot was mailed to you, when it was returned to our office and when we received it.”
She said all of that information is available to every Michigan resident via the Michigan Secretary of State office on the state’s website called “Michigan Voter Information Center,” at http://www.mvic.sos.state.mi.us.
The 2020 national election was the first big election following the passage in 2018 of ballot proposal 18-3, which allows all Michigan residents to vote via absentee ballot with no reason given.
Jonseck said the clerk’s office anticipated a larger number of absentee voters, so she ordered an additional ballot counting machine to handle the larger volume.
Prior to 2020, on average, the city had approximately 2,500 absentee voters during a national election cycle. However, in 2020, that number jumped to 7,000 absentee voters. That larger number might also have been driven, in part, by the COVID 19 pandemic.
She said staff was in the clerk’s office counting absentee ballots until 3 a.m.
During this year’s election cycles, Jonseck is better prepared for a larger number of absentee ballots. She ordered more ballot counting machines and now has a total of five to more quickly process absentee ballots.
Jonseck also emphasized that the absentee ballot drop boxes available on the grounds of the Municipal Office Center (MOC/Port Huron City Hall) are a very safe alternative to either mailing a ballot or handing it in at the city clerk’s office.
“The drop boxes are on camera and we check that every day,” she said. “We keep a log of every person who empties the boxes every day. They are on surveillance video 24 hours a day.”
She said that right now, the city administration has taken as many safety precautions as possible, well above and beyond what is required by the state, though she anticipates that at some point in the future the state will likely require additional safety precautions.
“We’re already one step ahead,” she said.
Once ballots are received in the clerk’s office, they are kept in a secure location, as well.
“Ballots are in a back room locked up and our staff is the only one with the code, so nobody has any access to them,” Jonseck said.
During the 2020 presidential election, there were news stories regarding various citizens around the country who showed up on election day and in some cases beyond, challenging the way ballots were being handled.
“In the city, we always have challengers,” said Jonseck, who noted that there are several different ways in which citizens can participate in ensuring a safe and secure election:
–Challengers. Per the Michigan Secretary of State website, election challengers must be appointed by their respective political party, or be an incorporated organization, or be a credentialed organization. A credentialed organization is one that has helped organize an issue on the ballot. “Candidates, candidate committees, or organizations formed to support or oppose candidates are not eligible to appoint or credential challengers,” per the website.
Said Jonseck: “Challengers are the nicest people and I have no issues with them. I think they are just interested in learning about the process itself.”
–Poll watcher. Anyone can sit in a public area at a polling site and observe. According to the Michigan Secretary of State website: “Members of the public who are not credentialed challengers have a right to observe elections. Members of the public wishing to observe elections, often referred to as poll watchers, do not enjoy the same rights as credentialed challengers.”
–Election inspectors. All ordinary citizens are invited to become election inspectors. They must receive training prior to the election to do the job. Jonseck said she is an official trainer and she trains the election inspectors in the city of Port Huron. Election inspectors are paid for their work on the day of the election, and also for the time they spend at pre-election training. Jonseck said she is always looking for election inspectors and she encourages citizens to apply on the city’s website.
Every election in the city, be it a city or county-wide election, a statewide election or a national election, all takes the same amount of work to set up ahead of time, said Jonseck. While she and her staff look forward to helping citizens engage in the voting process, it can get discouraging when voter turnout is low.
She said national/presidential elections bring about the largest turnout, but in 2020, that only meant that 63 percent of eligible registered voters actually voted.
“An election process does take like three months, from start to finish, so when we see these lower voter turnouts, it is discouraging because it takes the same amount of work,” she said.
Election day “is a long day, and it actually starts on Monday with setting up, then the election is on Tuesday, and by Wednesday, we are exhausted, and then the phone calls start,” she said, noting that in the 2020 election she heard from citizens concerned that their votes hadn’t been counted or accurately counted due to wrong misinformation being spread that votes cast with Sharpies – the indelible ink markers – were not counted or were miscounted.
“I do use Sharpies at my polls because it was recommended as a best practice,” said Jonseck, noting that many other polling locations also use them. “I test and verify ballots using them and they are accurate. I had to tell my voters that.”
In the event that voters were not satisfied with her reassurances, Jonseck said that there is another level of checks and balances: her office is always audited by the state.
“We are always audited,” she said. “I look forward to being audited. Every election, I learn something new. They come in and verify that we follow all of the state processes and then a physical hand count of the ballots and, of course, it matches 100 percent.
“So that’s how I reassure residents. They should be 100 percent confident that we are following state law and that their vote is secure.
“They can be confident in us.”
Jonseck noted that she is concerned that some citizens have become more bold about ignoring laws regarding campaigning at polling places, since it is against the law to wear a campaign button, hat, tee shirt or other item bearing a candidate’s name when voting.
“People are getting a little more aggressive with us,” she said, noting that she had a lot of precinct chairs resign after the last election. One incident had pollsters scratching their heads when parents showed up at the polls with their five-year-old child dressed head to toe as one presidential candidate, complete with orange-colored skin, and dressed in a suit and tie. Jonseck said technically, the little boy didn’t have a candidate name on his clothing, but it was clear the parents were trying to circumvent the law.
Due to situations like that, as well as the aggressive behavior that has ramped up, Jonseck has worked with Port Huron law enforcement to “have a police presence” at the polls.
In spite of the challenges presented by more recent election cycles, Jonseck thoroughly enjoys her job. “I do love government,” she said. “I will be one of those people who comes back after retirement to volunteer for elections. I do wear a lot of hats. The elections are just one small portion of what I do here.”