No-reason absentee voting could change 2020 Michigan campaigns

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The advent of no-reason absentee voting in Michigan could trigger earlier, targeted campaigning in presidential primary and general elections as some voters make up their minds earlier, political experts say.   

While the new voting option is not likely to increase turnout in 2020, experts say, it will move up the timeline for campaigning in Michigan as candidates reach out to those who might be voting weeks ahead of Election Day.  

Michigan's new no-reason absentee voting option is expected to increase the use of absentee voting but could diminish the state's significance in the March presidential primary.

As candidates campaign in early February ahead of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, more Michigan voters than in years past could be sitting at home with their absentee ballots in hand for the state’s own presidential primary March 10. 

The new voting dynamic is one that candidates seeking a win in Michigan would do well to observe, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest political consulting firm in Lansing.

“If you’re running a campaign that’s not adequately taking into account absentee voters, you’re going to lose,” Hemond said. 

The change in Michigan election law allowing for no-reason absentee voting — ushered in through the passage of Proposal 3 last year — has not gone unnoticed in either major party. 

The Michigan Democratic Party has hired a full-time voting rights director to educate volunteers, staff and the public on new options such as no-reason absentee voting, and the party is encouraging people to cast absentee ballots through at least two campaigns.

On two separate visits to Michigan in December, Vice President Mike Pence mentioned the new voting option and encouraged Republicans to “vote early” with a friend and then “to get involved.”

“I’m told with recent reforms in absentee balloting, it’s never been easier to be able to vote in Michigan,” Pence told a crowd of supporters in Saginaw last week. 

Popularity might vary

The no-reason absentee option is expected to be popular among many voters and a bit of a headache for local clerks who can’t start counting the absentee ballots until polls close.

More than 55% of voters in August’s local primaries cast absentee ballots, up nearly 12 percentage points over a similar election in 2017. The August percentage was more than the 48.5% who voted absentee in May elections and the 47.3% who voted absentee in November this year, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. 

The uptick in absentee voting in 2020 is expected to vary significantly from community to community based on demographics and the amount of publicity local clerks give to the new option, said Mark Grebner of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting. 

For example, in Lansing, where City Clerk Chris Swope had invested in outreach regarding the new option, more than 76% of the vote in the August primary was absentee. 

The Ingham County Board of Commissioners in October authorized Clerk Barb Byrum’s office to spend up to $40,000 to send out mailers encouraging registered voters to sign up for their municipality’s permanent absentee voter lists, which would qualify people for automatic absentee applications ahead of every election. 

The notices were expected to arrive Thursday in most mailboxes in Ingham County, specifically in communities where the local clerk had not already sent similar mail, Byrum said. 

“It’s another opportunity for citizens to exercise their right to vote,” she said. 

In Kent County, voter education and outreach have been left largely to local clerks, who increased their permanent absentee voter lists so much that roughly half of the voters in the county voted absentee in November, said Gerrid Uzarski, director of elections. 

"We definitely saw the numbers go up for the number of AV ballots that were mailed out, and that in turn brought in a higher number of returns than we’re used to seeing," Uzarski said. "That is only going to increase in 2020.”

The Michigan Democratic Party is preparing for and encouraging an increase in absentee voting in 2020 by adding personnel and increasing voter education, said party chairwoman Lavora Barnes. 

The party also expects to adjust its timeline for voter contact. 

"It makes us need to have conversations earlier because more voters will be voting early," she said. 

Grebner, who is also an Ingham County commissioner, estimates a record-breaking 6 million people will vote in the 2020 election, but he said no-reason absentee voting isn’t likely to play a large role in increasing the numbers. 

Instead, no-reason absentee voting is more likely to increase numbers in a small-turnout election where a person would otherwise not vote but does so because of the ease of an absentee ballot. In a presidential election, where there is decidedly more interest, there are few regular voters who would allow the inconvenience of voting in a precinct to stop them.

“It does affect the turnout, but only in certain kinds of elections,” Grebner said. 

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

Strategic influence

For Republicans and Democrats alike, an increase in absentee ballots allows candidates to tailor postcards, phone calls and doorstep visits based on publicly available absentee ballot data, which will serve as a road map for who’s requested an absentee ballot and who’s already voted. 

“It’s a great way to save money by investing a little more money early and ending the campaign for those (absentee) voters early,” Hemond said. “It’s all of the traditional voter contact strategies, just pulled forward.”

Candidates aren’t likely to abandon the state once the absentee ballots are in, Hemond said. In a close election, there’d be no reason not to return in the home stretch ahead of Election Day to sweep as many in-person voters as possible. 

President Donald Trump visited Michigan several times in the final days and hours ahead of the 2016 general election and won the state by 10,703 votes. 

“The 2016 general election is Exhibit A of why you still show up for that,” Hemond said.

Once absentee data is in, candidates can pinpoint where the remaining voters might be located and invest in those areas heavily, said John Sellek, who owns the public relations firm Harbor Strategic.

“It may not change the amount of activity in Michigan, but it may change who is being targeted,” Sellek said. “They’ll be using all of the massive amounts of data to make a scientific judgment of how a person voted.”

Looking to March, November

Added to the shifting dynamics of absentee voting is a new interpretation of absentee voting laws that is causing some concerns among local clerks. 

The Bureau of Elections informed local election clerks in late November that they should include a dual absentee application option on their March 10 absentee ballot application. The option would allow voters who apply for a March absentee ballot to automatically receive a November absentee ballot as well. 

The dual option has been available for August and November elections in the past. 

The decision concerned Byrum, who noted there potentially are two other elections between March and November that could have qualified for the dual application instead of November.

A lot can change between March and November, which could complicate the successful delivery of the second ballot, she said. 

“Voters move, things happen, and all elections are important,” Byrum said. 

Uzarski voiced similar concerns and wondered why the November general election would be tied to the March presidential preference primary instead of just the August primary election when the majority of down-ballot candidates would be selected. 

"To tie everything that’s going on there straight to November, it's kind of a stretch," he said. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office said the March and November elections were linked in the dual application "because they are the primary and general of the same election."

Clerks also were told if they had started developing an application different from the dual application required by Benson, they could continue using the already-developed application, said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson. 

The Michigan Republican Party did not return a call for comment on the provision. 

The option makes it more convenient to vote absentee, said Barnes, the state Democratic Party chairwoman. And concerns about changing addresses can be ameliorated by educating voters about the need to inform officials of a move.

"We’re encouraged by having more votes," she said.