Long voter waits in Ann Arbor, East Lansing on eve of Michigan primary

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

East Lansing — College students flooding city clerk’s offices in Ann Arbor and East Lansing for absentee ballots and same-day registration were creating wait times of 30 minutes to an hour on the eve of Michigan's presidential primary election.

A day after Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders rallied more than 10,000 students on the University of Michigan campus and urged them to take their friends to the polls, clerk's offices in university cities experienced increased traffic. People were waiting in line for up to an hour Monday to request absentee ballots or register for the election, said Lisa Wondrash, a spokeswoman for the city of Ann Arbor.

Myles McGhee, of East Lansing, fills out his absentee ballot application on the stairs inside East Lansing City Hall on Monday, March 9, 2020. McGhee, an Michigan State University sophomore, is one of many Ann Arbor and East Lansing students filling clerks' offices on the eve of the presidential primary election in Michigan.

Lines had been building at the city clerk's office for about a week, clerk Jacqueline Beaudry said.

“We have students registering to vote in person, and we also have voters who were previously issued absentee ballots spoiling those ballots due to candidates dropping out, and we still have voters until 4 p.m. requesting new absentee ballots," Beaudry said.

About 100 people were in line at the clerk’s office as of 2 p.m., Wondrash said. The city expected the lines to remain steady into Election Day.

“We have all hands on deck,” Wondrash said. “It’s not for lack of us putting extra people toward the effort.”

Students and residents wait outside the Ann Arbor city clerk's office to register to vote or cast absentee ballots on Monday, March 9, 2020. The city said voters waited between 30 minutes and an hour to be processed on the eve of Michigan's presidential primary.

Tuesday’s primary marks the first statewide election when Michigan voters can vote absentee for no reason and register to vote on the same day as the election, changing election dynamics at clerk's offices throughout Michigan. In the past, there were restrictions on who could vote with an absentee ballot, and registration ended a few weeks before Election Day.

In East Lansing, Michigan State University students are waiting in line for roughly 30 minutes to be processed, said Mikell Frey, a spokeswoman for the city of East Lansing.

“They are expecting and prepared for long lines for college students using same-day registration,” Frey said about the clerk's office. “They are experiencing longer lines as the students have just returned from spring break.”

Voters line up near the East Lansing city clerk's office to register to vote or vote absentee on the eve of Michigan's presidential primary on Monday, March 9, 2020. The city said there is a roughly 30-minute wait for college students and city residents waiting to be processed.

With all chairs and voting booths filled, Myles McGhee sat Monday on the staircase inside East Lansing City Hall to fill out his application to vote. 

Minutes before casting his ballot, the 26-year-old MSU student was still undecided on whether to vote for Sanders, the candidate he felt aligned most with student interests, or former Vice President Joe Biden, whom he said had the best chance of winning in November. 

"I kind of am weighing supporting the best options versus just giving it a shot and seeing where it goes," McGhee said. 

MSU student Shea Slanec, 21, was registering to vote and casting an absentee ballot in East Lansing after realizing her registration was still linked to her parents' Clinton Township address.

"I don't want to drive two hours home," Slanec said. "I would have to go after my class in the morning tomorrow and be back before my class in the afternoon."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson warned last week that Michigan’s results likely will be delayed as a result of the increase in absentee ballots.

As of Monday morning, clerks around the state had reported to Benson that they’d sent out 970,920 absentee ballots and received 712,851 ballots in return.

The numbers almost doubled from the eve of the 2016 primary, when the state had sent out 496,054 absentee ballots and received 398,043.

If Michigan's overall turnout Tuesday is around 2.2 million, as Lansing-based Democratic Consultant Mark Grebner is estimating, at least one-third of the votes cast will be done with absentee ballots. Those ballots could take hours to tabulate, delaying results Tuesday night.

"It’s just likely that whatever we see tomorrow is just a little taste of what we will have in November," Grebner said Monday.

As of Monday morning, 28,973 ballots had been spoiled in Michigan, an option available to any voter and chiefly used by those who voted for a candidate who later dropped out of the presidential race. Three active Democrats remain among 15 candidates on the Michigan ballot, while two Republicans including President Donald Trump are still on the ballot after two other candidates suspended their campaigns. 

People can vote absentee in person or spoil their ballot and cast another in person at their clerk’s office up until 4 p.m. Monday.