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Record 2.5 million voters in Michigan's primary; 1.6 million by absentee

Lansing — Michigan's turnout and absentee tallies from Tuesday's primary election blasted through previous state records and gave early indications that more Democratic voters are using absentee ballots than Republican voters. 

Roughly 2.5 million people voted in Tuesday's primary, pushing it past the previous primary record of 2.2 million voters in August 2018. Nearly 1.6 million absentee ballots made up more than 60% of the ballots cast, an absentee haul that surpassed Michigan's prior record of 1.27 million absentee ballots cast in the November 2016 presidential election. 

"What August showed is we can hold safe, accessible and secure elections in the midst of a pandemic," Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Thursday.

Data from five populous Michigan counties with high-profile Democratic and Republican races indicate Democratic absentee participation was higher than GOP participation. In Livingston, Oakland, Kent, Ingham and Wayne counties, Democratic absentee participation ranged between 70% and 80% of overall Democratic turnout, while Republican absentee use ranged between 45% and 55% of overall GOP ballots. 

If nothing else, the increase in absentee use is changing the way candidates campaign as they reach out to voters earlier and track their participation more closely, experts say. 

Lea Nelson, a polling inspector at Henry Ford High School, sanitizes a table after a voter left.

There's no way to say with any certainty whether absentee ballot use portends good or bad for either party, said David Dulio, a political science professor and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University.

But there's no doubt the higher absentee use in Michigan will change how and when candidates campaign, he said. 

"The campaign that can identify their voters, identify which of those individuals have requested a ballot and be in communication with those people to make sure they fill out their ballot will succeed," Dulio said. "That’s a much more labor-intensive process than traditional get-out-the-vote work.”

Voter approval of Proposal 3 in 2018 ushered in no-reason absentee voting, but Michigan's increased use of the option was accelerated this year amid the coronavirus pandemic after Benson mailed absentee ballot applications to all of the state's 7.7 million qualified voters. 

The decision was meant to foster more mail-in voting and decrease the risk of exposure through in-person voting. But some Republican lawmakers, including former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, have criticized the effort as not having proper checks and balances because some of the applications went to households where people have moved or died. 

Benson expects the number of absentee ballots cast to increase to at least 2.4 million in November, based on the number of absentee ballots that have already been requested and those already listed on a permanent absentee list. 

Breaking down vote

About 47% of those participating in the Tuesday primary voted a Democratic ticket and 40% voted a Republican ticket, based on the statewide total votes for Republican U.S. Senate challenger John James and Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters. They were the only statewide candidates running in the primary election.

Nearly 350,000 ballots did not record votes for James and Peters, perhaps reflecting voters who chose to leave that selection blank since each candidate was running unopposed or people whose partisan portion of the ballot was discarded because of illegal cross-voting.

Voters in the Metro Detroit counties of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne made up about 981,000 of the 2.5 million ballots cast or about 40% of the vote.

The highest rates of voter participation happened largely in more sparsely populated outstate counties. Leelanau County led among Michigan counties with a 47.1% turnout of registered voters, followed by Sanilac with 44%, Keweenaw at 42.7%, Benzie at 42.4% and Ogema at 42.2%. 

But some of those counties, such as Leelanau, have traditionally high turnout rates that don't reflect much change in voter intensity of interest in elections.

Other counties showed huge leaps in voter interest. The biggest percentage point increase in turnout from August 2018 to this year occurred in Republican stronghold Sanilac County, which experienced a 13.1-point rise. It was followed by Baraga County with a 12.1-point hike, Hillsdale County at 11.9, Osceola County at 11.7 and Menominee County with a 10.4-point increase.

Democratic voters tended to use absentee ballots more than Republican voters in the five populous counties surveyed by The Detroit News.  

In west Michigan's Kent County, a traditional Republican area that has become more favorable to Democrats, 74% of the people who voted for Peters did so by absentee ballot compared with 54% of James' voters.  

In the Democratic stronghold of Wayne County, 72% of Peters' voters used an absentee ballot compared with 54% of James' supporters. In Oakland County, which backs Democratic presidential nominees but recently has been split on countywide elected posts, absentee ballots accounted for 72% of Peters' votes compared with 45% of James' votes. 

The trend was the same in traditionally Republican Livingston County, where about 80% of Peters' voters cast a mail-in ballot to 53% for James' voters. 

Candidates who are best positioned to take advantage of absentee votes have "deeper pockets and larger staff," Oakland University's Dulio said.

"It’s a big task, and the campaign has got to be set up and staffed in order to do the work, and the funds need to flow into that," he said.

Where delays occurred

Four counties — Wayne, Oakland, Genesee and Ingham — were still counting ballots well into Wednesday, Benson said. Wayne County, the state's largest, finished up by the end of the day, she said. 

Metro Detroit voter participation appeared to be boosted by an unusual number of contested countywide primaries, especially in prosecutor races. There also were three competitive Republican congressional primaries and a Wayne County Democratic rematch between U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones.

Oakland County set a primary record for turnout with more than 37% of the county's registered voters participating in Tuesday's election, up from 34.3% in August 2018 and 20% in August 2016. The turnout was fueled by competitive primary races for county executive, a contested Democratic primary that resulted in the defeat of county Prosecutor Jessica Cooper as well as two heated GOP congressional primaries.

"We had a lot of interesting races on every level," Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said. "From local to county to federal races, there were races that were pulling voters out.”

In Wayne County, 29.7% of the county's registered voters participated in Tuesday's primary, up from 27.3% in August 2018 and 15.2% in August 2016, according to Secretary of State data. Interest there was fueled by a defense attorney's unsuccessful challenge to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, the Jones-Tlaib match-up and a slew of contested Democratic state House primaries.

Seven Democratic and Republican candidates ran for an open prosecutor's seat in Macomb County, which was home to the Republican 10th Congressional District primary, the most expensive in Michigan that saw millions of dollars spent on television ads. The county had a turnout rate of 32%, up from 29.9% in August 2018 and 19% in August 2016. 

Preliminary tallies indicate that at least 10,000 ballots were rejected during the primary election count. Officials are working to discern the reasons for the rejections — whether it was a late absentee ballot arrival, an absentee signature that didn't match what was on file or a crossover vote in which an individual improperly voted for candidates from both parties in the primary section of the ballot. 

"There are a few more variables that we are waiting to work out," Benson said.

The first-term Democrat urged legislators to change election law to allow clerks to start the processing of ballots before Election Day without counting them, require them to call the voter if an absentee signature didn't match, and allow ballots to be counted if postmarked before Election Day and received within two days after the election.

"If there’s no change in the law, it will likely be well into Friday or even the weekend before we can get full results" for the November presidential election, Benson said. 

The secretary of state also plans to request $15 million more in federal funding to hire more election workers, purchase more high-speed tabulators and acquire more personal protection supplies. 

"We need to be able to hire more people to work our elections this fall and to do so under enormously challenging circumstances," Benson said. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com