Michigan's absentee voting surges, but not in Detroit

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
The number of absentee ballots submitted for Tuesday’s primary election already has surpassed the last midterm primary by more than 100,000.

Early voting in Michigan's Tuesday primary is racing far ahead of the pace four years ago, leading at least one expert to project what would be the highest turnout for this cycle in 40 years.

As of Thursday, 50 percent more Michigan residents had requested ballots and 39 percent more had returned them than as of July 30, 2014.

Election experts say early absentee voting data points to a strong statewide voter turnout among Democrats. City officials say they are expecting relatively flat participation in Detroit, which remains the state’s largest concentration of reliably liberal voters.

“Detroit keeps shrinking,” said consultant Mark Grebner, whose East Lansing firm Practical Political Consulting tracks absentee ballot data across the state.

Based on absentee ballot requests and returns across Michigan, Grebner predicts total turnout could top 1.8 million, which would be the most in a state primary election since at least 1978, the oldest data available on the Michigan Secretary of State website.

About 1.7 million Michiganians cast ballots in the 2002 primary, when Democrat Jennifer Granholm and Republican Dick Posthumus won competitive races. Turnout topped 1.6 million in 2010, when Republican Rick Snyder and Democrat Virg Bernero won their partisan races.

In addition to the gubernatorial primaries, there are competitive races among Democrats in three Metro Detroit congressional districts while Republicans have tense contests for U.S. Senate and the 11th Congressional District, where GOP U.S. Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham is retiring.

The early absentee data so far reflects polling trends showing “a huge surge of Democratic interest without seeing a drop in Republican interest,” said Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossman.

“Past midterms, where the party out of power was surging, there was kind of a corresponding lag in interest from the other party and that doesn’t seem to be true this time,” he said.

As of Thursday, Detroit had mailed out 32,876 absentee ballots, a figure that could continue to rise through Election Day, said Elections Director Daniel Baxter. About 90 percent of voters who request an absentee ballot typically return them, meaning the city is on pace for about 29,500 absentee votes.

That would be down from the 31,000 absentee ballots Detroiters cast in 2014 and the 32,000 cast in 2010, the last year with an open governor’s seat and contested primaries for both Democrats and Republicans.

Absentee voters have until 2 p.m. Saturday to apply to receive an absentee ballot by mail and 4 p.m. Monday to request an absentee ballot in person. Absentee ballots requested in person Monday must be filled out in the clerk’s office.

Registered voters can request an absentee ballot in Michigan if they're 60 years old or older, can't vote without assistance, expect to be out of town, are jailed awaiting trial or arraignment, if they're prevented for religious reasons or if they will work as an election inspector outside of the precinct in which they live.

The Secretary of State's Office must receive all completed absentee ballots by 8 p.m. Tuesday.

“At this point, we encourage people who haven’t already obtained their ballot to go in person to the clerk’s office and vote the ballot there to ensure it doesn’t arrive too late to be counted,” said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams.

Ingham County had issued roughly 20,833 absentee ballots by noon Thursday and received 14,125 ballots back, Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said.

The county's 2014 numbers weren't immediately available, but Byrum said she makes a point to encourage absentee voting, "especially if they are 60 years young or they expect to be out of town.”

In Oakland County, about 96,000 absentee ballots have been issued and 37,000 returned. But the county's director of elections, Joe Rozell, expects the return rate to increase soon with a rush of ballots before Tuesday.

"We are seeing higher than normal absentee requests for a typical primary election," said Rozell. He predicted the county would see 27 percent to 29 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in Tuesday's primary, up from the 20.6 percent who voted in the 2014 midterm primary. 

The Secretary of State's Office had sent out 660,841 absentee ballots and received 412,194 completed ballots this year.

In the 2014 midterm primary, the state sent out 439,499 absentee ballots by July 30 and received 295,710.

Absentee ballot activity suggests Democratic turnout will be “surprisingly” high in some parts of the state and more “soggy” for Republicans, Grebner said.  Still, the so-called resistance to GOP President Donald Trump is unlikely to motivate participation in the primary the way it might in the November general election.

“In a primary, that hate doesn’t get you anywhere,” Grebner said. “We have this relatively limited set of people who are able to distinguish between two candidates from the same party. They have more than just a partisan view. They have views of individual candidates.”


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