Iowans will venture to caucus meetings Monday to help decide who should be the Democratic nominee for president as more Michigan voters than usual likely will be watching with absentee ballots in their hands.

Thirty-six days before Michigan's primary election on March 10, local clerks across the state are reporting increased requests for absentee ballots. It's partly because of a voter-approved 2018 constitutional amendment that allowed for no-reason absentee voting, and it's partly because of high interest in the 2020 election, clerks said.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told Detroit City Council Tuesday her office expected the number of absentee ballots cast to increase. Absentee votes in Detroit alone could double, Benson said.

"People are utilizing a new tool that is available to them," said Joel Hondorp, Grand Rapids clerk. "We’re moving voters from voting in the precinct to voting absentee."

The trend could spur the presidential primary campaign to intensify earlier than past cycles in Michigan and promise to benefit candidates who invest earlier in the state, political observers said.

Five of seven local clerks interviewed by The Detroit News in the past week reported higher interest in absentee voting at this point than the same time before the 2016 primary. The other two clerks said they expect more absentee voting than in 2016 by the end of the primary.

The primaries feature a competitive Democratic race and a Republican contest where President Donald Trump is expected to cruise to the nomination. The 2016 primary featured competitive races on both sides of the aisle, helping generate a record turnout of 2.5 million voters.

Three of the seven clerks said some voters in their cities would have absentee ballots in their hands by Monday night when Iowa becomes the first state to choose a candidate.

Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal in 2018 to allow for no-reason absentee voting. Before the proposal, voters had to meet certain criteria, like being older than 60 or and being out of town on Election Day, to not vote at the polls. Now, voters can cast absentee ballots as long as they request to.

Absentee interest up, from Pontiac to Grand Rapids

In Pontiac in Oakland County, the city had received 1,501 absentee voter applications from the 4,795 voters sent the applications, said Clerk Garland Doyle. All of the applicants were sent ballots starting Wednesday, and a handful have already returned their ballots, Doyle said.

The application numbers are already approaching the 1,922 total absentee voter ballots cast in the 2016 primaries.

In Grand Rapids on the west side of the state, Hondorp said his city had received about 10,000 requests for absentee ballots. For the 2016 primary, the city received about 7,700 applications.

In Warren, 10,858 voters had requested absentee ballots, a 64% increase from the 6,946 total absentee ballot requests in the 2016 primary election, said Clerk Sonja Buffa.

“We still have five more weeks before the election in March so we could have a significantly higher amount,” Buffa said.

The city won’t be sending out its first batch of absentee ballots until Feb. 7.

In Livonia, Clerk Susan Nash had already mailed out 7,186 absentee ballots on Wednesday. Nash said she plans to continue sending out batches in weekly, then daily, installments ahead of the primary.

Already, the nearly 7,200 ballots mailed out marked a 30% increase from the total number of absentee ballots issued in Livonia for the 2016 primary, Nash said.

Lansing is another city where some voters could have ballots in their hands by Monday night.

Chris Swope, city clerk, noted at a Lansing City Council meeting in January that voters in Lansing could get their absentee ballots on Monday, "which coincidentally is the same day as the Iowa caucuses."

Karen Lovejoy Roe, the clerk in Ypsilanti Township, and Benjamin Marentette, the clerk in Traverse City, said as of Friday, absentee ballot requests weren't outpacing four years ago in their communities. But both clerks were expecting that to change as March 10 approaches.

"I’d expect a significant uptick," Marentette said.

What it means

An increase of early absentee voting in Michigan and elsewhere could change campaign behaviors, pushing up timelines for mailers, debate or advertising, said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist and director for the Institute of Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.

In Michigan, early advertising appears to be paying off for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg as he polls higher than expected among Democratic presidential candidates without the same advertising presence.

Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden held the best chances among the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls of beating President Donald Trump in Michigan, according to an early January poll of 600 likely voters. Biden led Trump by 7 percentage points, while Bloomberg had a 6 point advantage over the president.

The early presence could pay off among early absentee voters, Grossman said. But most voters are likely to hold on to their absentee ballots until a little closer to Michigan's March 10 primary to avoid voting for a Democratic candidate who pulls out after Iowa. 

Michigan allows voters to change their absentee ballots before Election Day, even after they’re returned to the clerk’s office. But for most people it’s more convenient to hold off until closer to March. 

“I think there’s an incentive to hold your ballot until you hear which candidates will still be in the race,” Grossmann said.

Increased absentee voter numbers could be credited to Michigan’s new law allowing for no reason absentee, but the increase likely has more to do with the high voter motivation ahead of the 2020 elections and the extent to which local clerks promote the new voting option, said Mark Grebner, of Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing.

Local clerk involvement appeared to be a large contributing factor in local elections where no reason absentee voting was used at higher rates than in years past, Grebner said. 

“Where clerks have done that, the number of absentee voters is up 30% or 40% mainly among people under the age of 60,” he said.

Boots on ground in Mitten

Bloomberg has been the most visible candidate in Michigan in January as other candidates first targeted the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary with a promise to refocus eventually on Michigan. He is scheduled to make a campaign appearance Tuesday in Detroit. 

The New York billionaire has spent $7.5 million in the state on a flurry of TV ads through Feb. 4, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He also has opened two offices in Detroit with plans to open 10 more around Michigan and grow the more than 60 organizers already here.

Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign has one office and 20 staffers on the ground in Michigan. Warren has held five events in Michigan this cycle including time spent on the picket line with striking GM United Auto Workers union members in September, candidate rallies and a town hall with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. 

Businessman Andrew Yang’s campaign is confident in its Michigan operation ahead of the state’s primary, even with the added dynamic of early absentee voting, Yang’s national press secretary S.Y. Lee said in a statement. 

“In Michigan, we already have over dozens of volunteer leaders who help organize and coordinate supporter activities in the state, putting our campaign in a position of strength and advantage on March 10,” Lee said.

Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg's campaign has discussed the dynamic of early absentee voting with volunteers in Michigan and organized "For Pete" Twitter accounts in Ann Arbor, Flint and mid-Michigan.

As recently as Thursday and Friday the Biden campaign held events to get out the early vote involving state Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. 

Sanders' grassroots supporters reactivated operations in Michigan last summer and created what they called an unrivaled early ground game in the state.

Sanders narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton in the Michigan primary in 2016. Local Sanders' activists have stayed engaged through two separate groups, Michigan to Believe In and Michigan for Revolution.

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