Michigan's 'massive turnout' midterm highest since 1962

A long line of voters wait to vote Tuesday morning at Adler Elementary School in Southfield.

More than 4 million Michiganians cast ballots in Tuesday's midterm elections, the most for a gubernatorial race since 1962, according to the Secretary of State's office.

A total of 3,632,365 Michiganians voted in the election outside of Wayne County, according to unofficial results recorded by the Michigan Secretary of State. Add to that voters in Wayne County, which had about 99 percent of its voting precincts counted by Wednesday afternoon, the number of people who voted on Election Day exceeds the 4 million mark.

The total is at least 52 percent of the state's voting-age population — the most since 1962. Michigan has a total of about 7.5 million registered voters.

"It was a very large turnout for a midterm," said Fred Woodhams, a Secretary of State spokesman. "We're still under a presidential election like we had two years ago, but for a midterm, it was a massive turnout."

Michigan had a 4.8 million turnout for the 2016 presidential election.

On Tuesday, election officials said Michigan voters arrived at the polls in large numbers, despite a few snafus here and there.

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"Overall, things ran very smoothly across the state," Woodhams said. "There were some sporadic issues, like a jammed tabulator here and there, but there always are.

"There was nothing widespread, so we're very pleased, and it was great to see so many Michigan residents making their voices heard on Election Day."

Wayne County is the state's most populous county and has about 1.3 million registered voters, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

As of noon Wednesday and with 99 percent of its voting precincts reporting, the Wayne County Clerk's Office said its unofficial results show 662,575, about half, of the county's 1.3 million registers voters cast ballots in the election.   

Jennifer Redmond, assistant director for Wayne County elections, said Plymouth Township was among the municipalities with the greatest challenges counting ballots due to high turnout Tuesday night.

"They had huge turnout in Plymouth Township, and they were trying to tabulate a large number of ballots on a small tabulator," Redmond said.

At 3 a.m., Wayne County heard that the tabulating process was going really slow, so they sent out a technician out and ultimately they decided to bring out a high-speed tabulator. Results are expected to come in soon, Redmond said.

"It seems we had several communities that weren’t prepared with the turnout and had equipment malfunctions that caused some delays on Election Day," Wayne County Board of Canvassers chairman Jonathan Kinloch said. "We hope that we can learn from this and find out their plan for the future so that it doesn’t happen again."

Metro Detroit's two other largest counties also saw high voter turnout for the election. 

Macomb County had 367,868, or about 59 percent, of its 628,623 registered voters show up at the polls Tuesday, according to the Secretary of State.

In Oakland County, 609,099 residents elected officials and decided ballot questions. The county has 948,863 registered voters. That means nearly 64 percent of the county's voters cast ballots Tuesday.

Lisa Brown, Oakland County's clerk, said she believes a more than 64 percent voter turnout is a record for her county.

"In 2014, it was under 48 percent so that is a big jump there. I like it when people participate in democracy," Brown said.

Ballot proposals and candidates likely drove voters to head to precincts or vote absentee, Brown said.

"The engagement of what is happening at the national level has activated folks as well," she said.

Voters Jodi Ruby and Robert Billingsley of Oakland County said they would not have missed the opportunity to vote Tuesday.

Billingsley, a 49-year-old apartment manager from Berkley, said he was driven to the ballot box because he was more concerned with federal races, rather than state and local elections, after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.

“This seems like a big year to me,” Billingsley said. “It feels like this shouldn’t have happened; we should not have had Trump."

Ruby, a 53-year-old floral designer also from Berkley, said she missed the opportunity for straight-party voting on Tuesday but was determined to come out and fill out all the boxes for her candidates and state and local proposals.

"I am paying attention this year,” Ruby said.

Detroit’s Director of Elections Daniel Baxter said Wednesday the 41 percent turnout for the city was in line with the clerk’s projections.

The last time the city saw that high of a turnout for a gubernatorial race was a 45 percent showing in 1994, he said.

“Thereafter, it just kind of hovered in the 30 percent range,” he said. “We did see a significant spike in turnout, and it was more so in the precincts rather than with the absentee ballots, which were pretty much on par with the how many requested absentees in the 2014 gubernatorial. So, we had more voters to engage in the process at the precinct on Election Day rather than (absentee).”

Baxter said the city counted approximately 48,000 absentee ballots. The surge in turnout, he said, is likely tied to the multiple high-profile ballot proposals and races at the top of the ticket.

“There seemed to be a synergy surrounding the entire state, the entire nation, in terms of turnout so we took that into consideration,” he said.

Baxter said there were “minimal” problems at the polls apart from typical issues including late starts and minor equipment issues that, with the help of a troubleshooting team, were sorted out within a few hours.

“Everything kind of smoothed out and voters were out there engaging. There was a steady flow all day long,” Baxter said.

Baxter said that the elimination of straight-ticket voting in the general election did not appear to cause major backups or confusion among voters. The average time to complete a ballot was about 15 minutes, he said, and “people just waited.”

“All of the top of the ticket kind of drove turnout. Leading up to the midterm election, there were unprecedented television and radio ads driving folks to vote,” he said. “… both Democrats and Republican candidates were hustling, working to try to get as many people out to the polls on Election Day to vote for them. That mechanism kind of propelled people in Detroit to get out there and engage in the process.”

In Kent County, 61.5 percent of registered voters, about 282,219 people, turned out to vote, a big uptick from the 2014 midterm in which 43 percent of registered voters participated.

The turnout Tuesday was Kent County’s largest in at least 20 years, said Gerrid Uzarski, the Kent County elections director. Some lines were long but the delay seemed to be due to turnout rather than the time it took to fill in the ballot.

In Livingston County, about 98,695 ballots were cast in Tuesday’s election, representing roughly 66.7 percent of registered voters there, said Livingston County Clerk Elizabeth Hundley.

“In a normal midterm, turnout in Livingston County usually runs between 50 and 52 percent,” Hundley said.

In Grand Traverse County, nearly 66.4 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, outstripping the 47 percent in 2014, but falling short of the 71 percent who voted in the 2016 presidential election, said Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele.

Nearly a third of voters voted absentee, but that’s not unusual in the northern Michigan county.

“We have a good absentee total because we have a lot of snowbirds,” Scheele said.

Chris Thomas, former Michigan elections director and a current fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said on Wednesday that year in and year out, Michigan has seen about 3.2 million voters turn out for midterms.

The number only spiked in 2006 when Gov. Jennifer Granholm was up for re-election and 3.8 million voters came out, Thomas said.

"When I reviewed everything, given everything on the national scene, I knew people would be turning out to vote," Thomas said. "We have more registered voters than we had in 2006. I didn’t think it would be hard to get to that level."

Factors that drove high voter turnout included that fact that one party has been in control of Lansing for eight years, Thomas said.

"With all state officers on the ballot that can generate a large turnout out," he said.

All three ballot proposal were grassroots operations that dealt with significant issues in Michigan, Thomas said.

"There was a lot on the ballot that spoke to people and a reaction to the national scene," Thomas said. "And I think all those combined to have people turn out for both parties. It wasn’t just a  Democratic wave. ...That is a significant turnout for both parties. One party can't cause that. That is a two-party turnout, and independents were engaged who weren't normally there."

The higher number of absentee voters also drove up the numbers, Thomas said, and that will continue to increase after Michigan voters approved "no-excuses" needed absentee voting on Tuesday.

Local clerks had sent absentee ballots to more than 1 million Michigan voters as of late October, a 63 percent jump over the same point in 2014.

Michigan's highest voter turnout in any election was 5 million in 2008 when President Barack Obama was elected, Thomas said.

Geri Rinschler, chair of the League of Women Voters Oakland Area, said she was impressed and thrilled with the fact that more than 4 million people voted on Tuesday.

"I was impressed at how many people took the time to fill the ballot out. I heard people were afraid not to leave empty space in the box. Some women who voted absentee said 'I wanted a sticker. I didn’t get one,'" Rinschler said.

The turnout Tuesday and Trump’s galvanizing force in the White House is not likely to decrease before 2020, which could mean an even larger turnout then, said Mark Grebner, of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting.

“These people are not going to calm down over the next two years,” Grebner said.

With the passage of Proposal 3 Tuesday, Grebner said cities like Detroit and college towns across the state should be ready for an onslaught of voters seeking same-day registration in city and township halls.

“It’s a big deal,” said Grebner of the expected student population seeking to take advantage of the new option. “You can imagine 2,000 kids showing up at city hall on their scooters the day of the election.”


Twitter: @CharlesERamirez

Staff Writers Christine Ferretti, Elizabeth LeBlanc, Breana Noble and Associated Press contributed.