Mich. Democrats buoyed by absentee voting surge, record turnout predictions

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
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.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect new and corrected data from the Michigan Secretary of State, which initially shared erroneous past-year absentee voting numbers.

Lansing — A surge in mid-term absentee ballot requests and early returns may bode well for Michigan Democrats seeking to pick up congressional seats and regain at least some control in Lansing after eight years of majority Republican rule, experts say.

The spike in absentee ballot requests — up more than 63 percent from 2014 as of Oct. 22, according to state data — follows strong Democratic turnout in the August primary and is fueling predictions of record mid-term participation on Nov. 6.

Update: Michigan absentee ballot requests top 1 million mark

It’s no secret that Michigan Democrats have historically struggled to turn out voters in non-presidential elections, said party chairman Brandon Dillon, “but we seem to be seeing that won’t happen this year.”

Republicans contend any enthusiasm gap has evaporated amid a contentious U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process that energized party activists. And Democrats may simply be “cannibalizing” their Election Day voters through absentee ballots, said Jonathan Duke, political director for the Michigan GOP. 

“There are people that were already going to vote,” he said, noting absentee efforts Democrats thought would benefit them in 2016. “We are just better than the Democrats in turning out voters on Election Day.”

While both parties point to positive data points, outside experts say they’re seeing unique and positive trends for Democrats this year. Early absentee ballot returns appear to be up among younger voters, who are typically less likely to vote in midterm elections, and among suburban women in areas like Oakland County where polls suggest GOP President Donald Trump is particularly unpopular.  

Absentee data guru Mark Grebner of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting is predicting up to 4.2 million voters will cast ballots in the Nov. 6 election. It would be a 1 million vote increase over 2014, when 3.2 million voters cast ballots, and is more bullish than a recent 4 million projection by former Michigan Elections Director Chris Thomas.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm,” Grebner told The Detroit News last week, citing statewide absentee request counts he’s analyzed. “People are voting. People are going to vote. People are worried about long lines in November.”

As of Oct. 22, with 15 days left until the election, clerks had sent 1,008,904 absentee ballots to voters who requested one, up 63 percent from 617,924 requests at the same point in 2014, according to data compiled by the Secretary of State’s Office.

There were an extra 64,985 absentee ballot requests in Oakland County,35,374 in Macomb County and 55,631 in Wayne County. Oakland and Wayne supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, while Macomb backed Trump.

On the west side of the state, there had been an additional  28,131 ballots sent out in Kent County through Oct. 22, a 90 percent increase that ranked among the highest in the state. Kent is a traditional Republican stronghold where Democrats have made gains in recent years. 

Turnout is usually highest in presidential years, and midterm absentee requests still trail 2016, when 1,068,143 voters had requested ballots by Oct. 22.

Roughly two weeks from the election, at least 38 percent of ballots that clerks sent out had been returned, compared with about 41 percent at the same point in 2014. Those numbers can vary, however, depending on whether local clerks are up to date on data entry. 

Democrats have traditionally benefited from high-turnout elections in Michigan, but that norm was flipped on its head in 2016, when Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1988.

If turnout rivals 2016, when more than 4.8 million Michigan voters cast ballots, “it’s not just Democrats that are showing up, it’s our people as well,” the Michigan GOP's Duke said.

Dillon acknowledged that memories of 2016 dampen Democratic enthusiasm over early absentee ballot requests and returns that he said are “way up” compared with the last mid-term election in 2014.

“It’s tough to know exactly who’s voting, and I don’t know that it’s an exact science, but the more people that participate in midterms, we always think is beneficial to us,” he said. “But we’re going to keep driving all the way to Election Day.”

Absentee data

Both political parties, along with independent firms, have attempted to turn absentee voting analysis into a science by pairing proprietary voter data information with each request.

The Michigan Republican Party scores every voter who requests an absentee ballot on a scale from negative 100 to positive 100, depending on how likely they are to vote Republican. They then contact expected GOP voters through phone banks, mail and other ways to encourage them to return ballots.

Some growth in absentee voting is natural each election as clerks add more voters to their permanent lists and mail them a ballot each year, Duke said.  Despite a concerted absentee effort by Democrats, Republicans are still over-performing in congressional and legislative districts they currently control “almost without exception,” he said.

“There was a surge of Democratic ballots coming in, but over the last seven days, that has leveled out, and now we’re starting to increase over Dems statewide,” Duke said.

But outside firms say Democrats have reason to be optimistic.

"Female voters that don’t normally participate in off-presidential years” appear to be driving some of the absentee ballot surge, said Matt Marsden, a GOP consultant with the Pontiac-based RevSix data firm. “That seems to be significant,” he said, and a positive sign for Democrats. “Oh my gosh, yes.”

An influx in requests from younger voters, who do not typically cast ballots at high rates in mid-term elections, is also a positive development for Democrats, said Grebner, a Democratic member of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners.

 “There’s two kinds of absentee voters: Old people and not old people,” Grebner said. “For old people, the rate is up a little bit. For people who are not old, it’s up quite a bit.”

Marsden attributed strong Democratic absentee numbers to a major push four years ago, when the party signed up large numbers of voters but was not as successful as getting them to return ballots.

“To me right now, it’s the not-returned number that I’m watching,” he said. “That’s what I think is going to be the biggest indicator of whether or not the Democrats have capitalized on earlier work done in 2014.”

Absentee option

Current Michigan law, which would be relaxed if Proposal 3 is approved on the Nov. 6 ballot, requires voters to provide a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot to vote by mail. 

The option is available to anyone who is over 60 years old, will be out of town on Election Day, is unable to vote without assistance or due to religious reasons, is in jail awaiting arraignment or trial, or is appointed to work as an election inspector in a precinct where they are not registered.

Democrats are taking extra steps to remind targeted voters who have requested absentee ballots that straight-ticket voting is no longer allowed this cycle and that they have to vote for each candidate individually, Dillon said.

Voters can request an absentee ballot by mail up until 2 p.m. on Nov. 3, can vote an absentee ballot at the clerk’s office in person up until 4 p.m. Nov. 5 and must return absentee ballots to the clerk’s office by 8 p.m. Nov. 6.

The cost of mailing an absentee ballot differs depending on the size and weight of the ballot in each municipality, but generally runs between 50 and 71 cents, said Elizabeth Najduch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service.

Even if postage is unpaid or underpaid, post office personnel will deliver the absentee ballot, Najduch said, but may charge the local clerk for the balance. And, as with any underpaid letter, “the mailer risks a delay in their mail being received,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, on Friday sent a letter to Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan telling him that multiple voters had contacted her office to say their completed ballots this past week were improperly forwarded back to their homes. 

“USPS’s response to these concerns has been prompt and thorough thus far, but the nature of this issue has the potential to affect many absentee ballots in the State of Michigan,” Dingell said in the letter. “These issues appear to be related to the design of the Michigan absentee ballots, which have bar codes on both sides of the envelope that can result in misreading by USPS machinery.”

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed


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Twitter: @jonathanoosting


Absentee ballot comparisons

The number of absentee ballot requests in certain Michigan counties through Oct. 22:

Wayne County:  112,810 in 2014 /   168,441  in 2018

Oakland County:  100,953 in 2014 /  165,938 in 2018

Macomb County:  67,667 in 2014 /  103,041 in 2018

Washtenaw County:  19,661 in 2014 /  38,587 in 2018

Monroe County:  11,194 in 2014 /  16,045 in 2018

Source: Michigan Secretary of State