Lansing — Michigan Republicans and Democrats are both optimistic about their chances to win large numbers of absentee voters, finding positive trends about their parties in initial returns of absentee ballots less than two weeks before Election Day.
Republicans have a slight lead in the amount of absentee ballots returned by likely voters, but a larger percentage of voters identified as Democrats have returned their ballots, according to a new data analysis.
As of Wednesday, voters identified as Republican had returned 20,624 more ballots than those believed to be Democrats, 190,734 to 170,110, according to an analysis by Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing.
“We’re winning,” Steven Ostrow, executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “Over the last three, four or five days, the returns have really started to swing our way.”
But the proportion of Michigan’s Republican primary voters who are completing general election absentee ballots is lagging behind the return rate of their Democratic counterparts, suggesting continued indecision within the GOP over presidential candidate Donald Trump, said Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting.
About 55.5 percent of voters identified as Democrats had returned their absentee ballots to their local clerks by Tuesday, compared with 48.4 percent of Republican voters, according to Grebner’s analysis.
The seven-percentage-point gap between the returned Democratic and Republican absentee ballots is consistent across the state and even when African-Americans and voters under the age of 60 are taken out of the equation, Grebner said.
“There’s a substantial gap in the return rates of people who have ballots, and I interpret that to mean there’s a bunch of Republicans who have the pen in their hand and they don’t know which arrow to complete,” said Grebner, a Democrat who works for candidates from both parties. “It just looks as if this is a measure of people having trouble voting.”
Absentee voting, Michigan’s only form of early voting, is expected to exceed the 1.28 million absentee ballots cast in the 2012 presidential election.
Clinton’s campaign and Michigan Democrats have heavily emphasized contacting voters who have requested and received an absentee ballot, said Brandon Dillon, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
“So far we’re encouraged by the numbers we’re seeing, but there’s still a lot of time and there’s a lot of people who have their ballots out,” Dillon said.
‘Steady stream’ of voters
Nearly 1.1 million absentee ballots had been distributed to voters as of Tuesday, a 4.6 percent increase from the same period in the 2012 election with 12 days to go, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Absentee ballots also are being returned by mail or in person to local clerks at a faster rate than four years ago, data show.
As of Tuesday, 46 percent of all ballots had been returned. Four years ago, with 12 days left on the campaign calendar, 43 percent of the 1,045,294 ballots had been returned, according to state data.
At Livonia City Hall, clerk Susan Nash has seen a “steady stream” of voters coming into her office over the past two weeks to fill out an application and obtain an absentee ballot in person.
The influx of absentee voters came after Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s second and final presidential debates on Oct. 9 and Oct. 19, Nash said.
“You kind of had the feeling when people came to the counter, they had had enough. ‘I’ve made up my mind. I don’t need to know anymore. I’m good,’ ” she said.
The Republican and Democratic parties are closely tracking the return of absentee ballots that will likely represent a quarter of the votes cast. A record high 7.5 million Michigan adults are registered to vote in the Nov. 8 election, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Voters have to meet one of six criteria to obtain an absentee ballot by mail or in person at a clerk’s office. The most common reasons are voters over age 60 or those who won’t be in their hometown on Election Day.
“As we know, more and more people are availing themselves of that option each year,” Dillon said.
The two parties will be deploying volunteers to call and knock on the doors of voters who have applied for and received an absentee ballot, which is a matter of public record.
“We’ve got volunteers out there calling, knocking on doors, seeing what they think and trying to help persuade them,” Ostrow said.
The GOP’s voter persuasion efforts focus on the economic track record of “the Republican team” in Michigan state government and less about Trump, Ostrow said.
“When you compare the issues, Republicans win every time,” he said.
Data ‘not perfect’
Grebner’s analysis is based on data the Secretary of State’s Office collects daily from municipal clerks.
But the Republicans have a smaller return rate so far, in part, because there were 87,617 more ballots in circulation among voters who cast Republican primary ballots in March, according to Grebner’s calculations.
“If you pick a township or pick or a county and sure enough Republicans are five or seven percentage points behind,” Grebner said. “This did not show up in previous years.”
He acknowledged the data are “not perfect” because no uniformity exists in the daily tracking of absentee ballots among Michigan’s 1,603 city, village and township clerks.
Some municipal clerks report absentee returns to the Secretary of State’s Office on a daily basis, while some do it once a week or even less frequently during the six-week pre-election period of absentee voting, he said.
Grebner classified voters by party based on whether they voted in the March 8 Democratic or Republican presidential primaries.
But Trump’s candidacy has torn the GOP during the fall campaign as some Republicans have renounced their support for Trump.
A statewide poll conducted Oct. 10-11 by the Glengariff Group Inc. found 32 percent of strong Republicans were not supporting their party’s nominee. By comparison, 16 percent of strong Democrats said they didn’t plan to vote for Clinton.
Grebner expects the gap between returned Republican and Democratic ballots to narrow as Election Day nears.
“Most of them will figure it out,” Grebner said of undecided Republican voters.
The big unknown is voters who weren’t among the record 2.5 million who participated in Michigan’s presidential primary.
As of Wednesday morning, there were 375,995 absentee ballots sent to voters who didn’t participate in the primary and 34.3 percent had been returned, according to Grebner’s analysis.
Ostrow disputes Grebner’s criteria of only using the March presidential primary to identify potential Republican and Democratic voters.
The state Republican Party uses a more sophisticated analysis that includes a voter’s primary voting history going back to the early 1990s, he said.
“Mr. Grebner’s screening seems a little underwhelming,” Ostrow said. “By only using the presidential primary data, I think is a little bit misleading. ... Compared to where we were in 2012, I think we’re pretty much right on pace.”