Absentee voting becomes Michigan’s latest battleground
Correction: The number of absentee ballots cast by Michigan voters increased nearly 19 percent from 2010 to 2014. This story has been updated to correct the time frame.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s campaigns have their eyes set on Michigan’s reliable bloc of absentee voters who will begin receiving their ballots in the mail Monday, just before the presidential contenders square off in their first televised debate.
Early voting effectively begins next week in Michigan. Absentee ballots start going out in the mail Saturday to largely older voters who have already completed an application to get a ballot up to seven weeks before the Nov. 8 election.
Absentee voting represents a growing segment of the ballots cast in the state’s elections, despite being restricted to individuals who are disabled, over age 60 or plan to be out of town on Election Day. In the 2014 gubernatorial mid-term election, 809,697 absentee ballots were cast, a nearly 19 percent increase from the 2010 presidential election.
In recent weeks, the Clinton and Trump campaigns have ramped up their voter outreach efforts, targeting routine absentee voters in their respective parties first as they seek to consolidate their bases before reaching voters who remain on the fence in a deeply divisive election.
The Trump campaign is planning to send absentee voters direct mail advertising and those voters will likely hear from volunteers at their door or by phone, said Scott Hagerstrom, director of Trump’s Michigan campaign.
“We’ll be doing everything we have to to make sure we communicate with our absentee voters,” Hagerstrom told The Detroit News.
The Trump mail advertising, Hagerstrom said, contains a message that the election “is not Republicans versus Democrats — the message is about Americans versus the political elite.”
The Clinton campaign has focused its canvassing efforts in recent weeks on registering new voters before the Oct. 11 deadline, said Stephen Neuman, senior adviser for Clinton’s Michigan campaign.
“We’re really having a large number of one-on-one discussions about how Donald Trump is only in it for himself and Hillary Clinton has a lifetime of fighting for children and families,” Neuman said.
The Clinton campaign won’t disclose how many new voters they have registered through a series of drives featuring Hollywood celebrities and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
But the absentee voters are among those being targeted in door-to-door canvassing in Democratic strongholds like Detroit and areas where Democrats are in closer races for local, state and federal offices.
“We are targeting different strategies in communities all across the state, and certainly in places where there are targeted state House races and targeted congressional races,” Neuman said.
Chasing absentee votes
Clinton and the Michigan Democratic Party have 34 coordinated campaign offices in the state, spokesman Mitchell Rivard said. The Clinton campaign wouldn’t discuss advertising strategy in Michigan or disclose how many paid employees are spread across the state.
Republicans say they have 74 paid field staffers in the state between the Michigan Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign, which has 10 staffers.
The state GOP and RNC are operating 13 campaign offices in coordination with the Trump campaign and plan to exceed the 23 offices they had in 2012, said Steven Ostrow, executive director of the state GOP.
Trump’s campaign has four offices in St. Clair Shores, Walled Lake, Grand Rapids and Muskegon, said Hagerstrom, who expects the total Republican field offices to exceed 30 by October.
Campaign field offices serve as staging grounds for distributing signs and organizing volunteers to fan out into populated areas of the state in search of votes.
The two major political parties have developed sophisticated computer systems for tracking the distribution of absentee ballots through public records held by the Secretary of State’s Office.
Every business day until Election Day, the Secretary of State’s Office gets information from municipal clerks in all 83 counties detailing when a ballot is mailed to an individual voter and when it is returned.
The Republican and Democratic parties obtain the reports every day through the Freedom of Information Act and use the information to dispatch campaign volunteers to call and visit voters in what’s known as an “absentee chase” program.
“One of the reasons I feel so good about our absentee program is we are pushing those hard Republicans to vote via absentee,” Ostrow said.
Battle lines drawn
The Michigan GOP began its own mail advertising campaign this week that is targeted toward getting reliable Republicans who qualify to vote absentee to do so by mail, Ostrow said.
Getting firm Trump supporters to vote early ensures “their vote’s in the bank on Election Day to make our Election Day efforts more efficient,” he said.
Ostrow said the state party’s mail advertising will tout Trump, criticize Clinton and seek votes for the Republican Party’s two nominees for the Michigan Supreme Court — Justices David Viviano and Joan Larsen.
“We’ll have more hitting on the fact you can’t trust Hillary and her web of lies,” Ostrow said of the mail program.
Mark Grebner, a Democrat and political consultant from East Lansing, questions whether campaign literature will persuade voters in this presidential election.
“The battle lines are too deeply drawn to be effective,” Grebner said. “Opinions are too hardened. Nobody is persuadable by your in-laws much less by a person who is a stranger.”
In Detroit, Democrats are focused on countering Trump’s recent appeal to African-American voters that they’d have nothing to lose by bucking Clinton and the Democratic Party they’ve largely supported for generations.
“Mr. Trump said to African-Americans, ‘What do you have to lose?’ Well, you tell me what do you have to gain?” asked Keith Smith, a Clinton campaign volunteer who has been doing daily canvassing of neighborhoods on the city’s west for a month.
Smith, 49, works in the archiving department of the Wayne County clerk’s office and spends his evenings and weekends walking door-to-door for the Clinton campaign.
In recent weeks, Smith has largely focused on voter registration ahead of the Oct. 11 deadline. But that task will pivot to securing votes for Clinton as absentee ballots get distributed.
“Wherever I go — if I’m at the bus stop or the store — I’m always getting out the word about the voter registration deadline,” Smith said. “October the 11th is it, and if you miss that, who knows what’s going to happen.”
Smith canvassed Avon Avenue in northwest Detroit last Saturday in the rain, checking for voter registration at each house and handing out Michigan Democratic Party literature featuring photos of Clinton and President Barack Obama that said “protect his legacy.”
“Hillary, she seems like she’s more for us,” said Virgil Jackson, a 46-year-old laundromat janitor whom Smith visited. “We gave Obama a chance, a black man. Let’s see what a woman can do in office.”
How to get absentee ballot
Registered voters can apply for an absentee ballot through their local city or township clerk if they are:
■Age 60 years old or older.
■Unable to vote without assistance at the polls.
■■Expect to be out of town on Nov. 8.
■Are in jail awaiting arraignment or trial.
■Unable to go to the polls on Election Day due to religious reasons.
■Working as an election inspector outside of their precinct of residence.
Voters can search for their local clerk’s contact information online at www.Michigan.gov/vote.
Requests for getting an absent voter ballot mailed to you must be received by a voter’s clerk no later than 2 p.m. Nov. 5, the Saturday before the election.
Ballots must be returned to the local clerk by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Municipal clerks have reported growth in the number of voters casting absentee ballots by mail.
Ballots sent: 744,054
Ballots returned: 681,444
Return rate: 91.5 percent
Ballots sent: 1,319,388
Ballots returned: 1,242,317
Return rate: 94.1 percent
Ballots sent: 876,281
Ballots returned: 809,697
Return rate: 92.4 percent
Source: Michigan Secretary of State’s Office