Absentee voting remains popular in Michigan's largest cities as primary nears

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Warren — As Tuesday's primary elections near, sizeable numbers of voters across Michigan's largest cities continue to make their voices heard through absentee voting.

On the ballot in Warren are two millage renewal proposals, for public safety and another for roads. 

Despite the lack of personalities from a mayor's race or City Council contest that would drive interest in the election, nearly 10% of Warren's registered voters have already voted via absentee ballots.

"People are preferring the absentee method much more these days," Warren City Clerk Sonja Buffa said.

In this May 5, 2020 file photo, Angela Beauchamp fills out an absentee ballot at City Hall in Garden City, Mich.

In 2018, Michigan voters approval Proposal 3, for no-reason absentee voting. In the  November 2020 election, the state set a record for voter participation with more than 60% of registered voters casting absentee ballots in part because of the COVId-19 pandemic. 

"Proposal 3 has changed the way people vote and who votes," said Mark Grebner, an Ingham County commissioner and founder of Practical Political Consulting.

"Normally you'd have very low turnout for an August primary" Grebner said. "But so many people are on absentee lists that they get the application, send it in, get the ballot and send that it. It's almost mechanical."

In some cities, as many as one-third of voters are on the permanent absentee list. That means they're sent absentee ballot applications.

The voter still has to request the ballot, Buffa noted.

"That is a common misconception, especially last year," she said, that clerks are unilaterally mass-mailing absentee ballots.

"By law, we can't just send ballots out," Buffa said.

In 2020, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson decided to mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in Michigan ahead of the August and November elections. Benson didn't follow up with a similar move this year.

Warren, Michigan's third-largest city, has 107,377 registered voters. As of Friday, 14,181 had requested absentee ballots, and 71% of them, or 10,128, had cast absentee votes.

That's almost 10% of voters. In the August 2019 primary, where mayoral and council candidates were on the ballot, turnout was 17%, according to the Macomb County Clerk's Office.

In November 2020, the presidential election, more people voted absentee in Warren (37,819) than showed up at the polls (29,214), Buffa said.

It was not always the case. In November 2016, the last presidential election before no-reason absentee voting, Warren had more voters show up at the polls, 54,107, than vote absentee, 40,701.

Buffa attributed the high interest in absentee voting to several factors: the law itself, the ease of absentee voting and the belief, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that it was safer to vote absentee than show up to the polls.

Prior to no-reason absentee voting, people needed to cite their age (60 or older), a disability or otherwise unavailable on Election Day.

"Democracy is working," said Gilda Jacobs, CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy. "People are understanding the weight of their vote."

Warren's neighbor to the north is Sterling Heights, Michigan's fourth-largest city.

Sterling Heights has about 90,000 registered voters, said Judy McHale, clerk coordinator for the City Clerk's Office. That's a higher voter tally than 65 of Michigan's 83 counties.

At least 13,347 have requested absentee ballots for the August election and 64% of them, or 8,580, have cast those votes. That's about 9.5% of voters.

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor, a Republican who was an outspoken supporter of Joe Biden's 2020 presidential bid as a Democrat, is facing two challengers.

More:Sterling Heights mayor faces primary challenge after Biden vote, spending moves

Lansing has 86,798 registered voters. Thus far, 11,585 people have requested absentee ballots for Tuesday's election, and 7,184 have returned them.

That's more than 8% of all voters. In the August 2017 mayoral primary, turnout was about 15%, according to the Ingham County Clerk.

Mayor Andy Schor won the 2017 mayoral race and is seeking a second term. He faces five challengers, including two City Council members, according to WKAR Public Media.

The Detroit City Clerk did not respond to requests for information.

But City Clerk Janice Winfrey has said previously she expects 13% to 18% voter turnout.

How many ballots to print?

McHale of Sterling Heights said the Clerk's Office uses a process for deciding how many ballots to print. It reviews "like" elections — presidential, local, ballot questions and primaries among the permutations — and then adds 20%.

"You make your best guess," Buffa said. "You never want to run out of ballots."

Warren has printed about 40% of its ballots for Aug. 3.

The growth of interest in absentee voting made this election tough to estimate, Buffa said.

"I really couldn't compare it to anything," Buffa said.

It was a common thought.

Taylor, the largest city in Wayne County's Downriver area, is a suburb of about 61,000. Topping the August ballot is a mayoral election where the best-known name, incumbent Mayor Rick Sollars, is running as a write-in candidate. 

More:Taylor race focuses on 'dark cloud' of indicted mayor seeking write-in reelection

Of Taylor's 47,688 registered voters, 6,313 voters had requested absentee ballots, and 3,639 had returned them, or just under 8%, as of last week.

For all the comparisons and best guesses, "we have no way of predicting how many people will show up on Election Day," McHale said.

Donna DeWinter, a staffer at the Westland City Clerk's Office, said the western Wayne County suburb has 65,225 registered voters.

DeWinter said 9,761 voters had requested absentee ballots, and 5,958 had returned them. That's a 61% return rate, and comes out to 9% of all Westland voters.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill Wild faces three challengers. 

The Secretary of State Office, which oversees elections in Michigan, said there are too many data points to augur the turnout on Election Day. 

"There is so much variance across the state," said Secretary of State spokesman Jake Rollow. "Different areas have different races and matters on the ballot. There are far too many jurisdictions to make a prediction what will happen."

jdickson@detroitnews.com