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Lansing — With today's Michigan’s voter registration deadline, Democrats are pushing to register more voters, while Republicans are focused on ensuring already registered voters make it to the polls.

NextGen America, a liberal advocacy group started by California billionaire Tom Steyer, has registered more than 36,000 college students on Michigan campuses since January through its "Rising" program, said Jenna Chapman, an organizer for the group who is leading the voter registration drive at Michigan State University.

“I like to say this is just part of adulting,” Chapman said. “… You don’t want all the old, retired people making all of the decisions for you.”

Michigan residents 18 or older who are U.S. citizens have until Tuesday to register with their local clerk. But the Michigan Republican Party is not focusing on getting new voters signed up because state voter registration numbers are already “incredibly high,” said party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson.

“Our focus is on contacting current voters, messaging to them, and getting them out to vote for Republican candidates,” Anderson said.

The Michigan Democratic Party is not only focusing on registration, spokesman Paul Kanan said, but also on ensuring people understand the associated dates for registration and voting, the pertinent locations and the elimination this year of the straight-party-ticket voting option.

"Our voter registration effort is really part of our overall voter information effort," Kanan said. 

As of last Saturday, 7.43 million people were registered to vote in Michigan, slightly less than the 7.45 million who were registered prior to the last gubernatorial election in 2014.

Under law, those wanting to register must also be a resident of the town where they're registered or are registering to vote, according to the Secretary of State's office. Voters must obtain a voter registration application from a polling station.

The application can be delivered by hand or mail to local township or city clerks where applicants are planning to register. A voter registration card, once obtained, will show at which polling location voters are to cast their ballots on Election Day.

Voters must have an "acceptable photo ID" at polls, or sign an affidavit if they don't have one, according to the Secretary of State's Office. 

Any questions about voting can be directed to local city and township clerk's offices. Go to www.michigan.gov/vote for more information and visit the Secretary of State's Michigan Voter Information Center website to see what your ballot will look like on Nov. 6.

Voting challenges

The number of registered voters doesn't matter as much as how many of them cast ballots, said Mark Grebner, an attorney at Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing. Voter registration numbers can include people who have since moved out of state or died, he said.

The key is more young registered voters cast primary ballots this year than did so four years ago, Grebner said.

The number of voters age 18-29 grew from about 49,000 voters in the 2014 Michigan primary to 143,000 in the 2018 primary, according to Practical Political Consulting. Young voters increased as a proportion of the electorate from 3.7 percent of the votes cast in 2014 to 6.8 percent of the votes cast this year.

“We had almost three times as many people 18-29 vote this August as in 2014,” Grebner said about primary voters.

But challenges remain. This year there is no straight-party-ticket option that has tended to favor Democrats.

In addition, getting newly registered young voters to the polls in November will remain a challenge, said Brian Began, a Republican consultant for the Grassroots Midwest political consultancy in Lansing.

"For a midterm election or just voting in general, I think there’s a lot more urgency or push for people to register this year," Began said. "But registration does not equal turnout.” 

Motivating registration

Groups take different approaches to registering voters. 

NextGen's voter registration efforts are nonpartisan, said NextGen Rising media manager Janet Williamson, but NextGen supports progressive "issues that matter to young people — which are most often supported by Democrats." 

NextGen America produced a 30-second digital voter guide that briefly describes the roles of Michigan's governor and U.S. representatives in Districts 7, 8 and 11 before marking large red X's on the faces of the Republican candidates for those seats because of their stances on issues such as health care, drinking water and immigration. 

For governor, Republican Bill Schuette faces Democrat Gretchen Whitmer.

The three congressional races are considered potentially tight as Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, is opposed by Democrat Gretchen Driskell of Saline, while Holly Democrat Elissa Slotkin is taking on Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester. The 11th District is an open seat where Democrat Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills is facing Republican Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Hills.

Michigan voters could set a midterm turnout record this fall, said former state Elections Director Chris Thomas. More than 4 million ballots will be cast in the Nov. 6 election, he predicts, based on the record participation in the August primary, up from the prior high of 3.8 million in 2006.

Midterm turnout typically hovers around 3.2 million voters, as it did in 2014. Voter participation is traditionally higher in presidential elections, as Michigan experienced in 2016 when it drew 4.8 million voters to the polls.

The increase in young voters, who typically lean Democrat, from the 2014 to the 2018 primaries is not surprising, said East Lansing-based pollster and Republican strategist Steve Mitchell. The surge is linked to a dislike of President Donald Trump, he said.

The wide use of text messaging and emails have provided channels to remind youth to register and vote. But they aren’t the only ones expected to show up at the polls.

“Democrats are going to turn out to vote of all ages,” Mitchell said. “There’s going to be a very strong Democratic turnout. What we don’t know yet is if there’s going to be an equally large turnout of Trump supporters and Republicans.”

Among Republicans, the fierce debate over Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court might drive more to the polls in November, Mitchell said. The hearings, allegations and debate have galvanized Republicans, some of whom appear to be unconcerned about the threat of a blue wave, he said.

“This is an example of an emotional issue in which both sides are really invested and emotionally invested,” Mitchell said. “The Republicans want to see that nomination occur as much as the Democrats want to stop it.”

A Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Detroit News-WDIV poll of 600 likely Michigan voters found a motivation to vote of 9.5 on a scale of 10, up from 9.4 in early September. Both Republicans and Democrats averaged over 9 in the voter intensity measurement. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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