GOP, Democrats hot on trail of Michigan absentee voters

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Republican and Democratic parties are vigorously courting absentee voters this fall as the Nov. 4 election could be decided by which party gets more partisan loyalists to cast ballots.

Ballots for voters who can't make it to the polls on Election Day have been arriving in mailboxes across Michigan for the past three weeks. The two parties are focusing their campaign messages and contact on these voters, who make up a larger percentage of the electorate each year.

The two political parties and allied political groups have developed sophisticated systems to track the return of more than 588,000 absentee ballots that have already been sent to voters who are homebound, going to be out of town on Election Day or over age 60 and entitled to vote from home.

As of Tuesday, 126,536 absentee ballots had been returned to clerks in Michigan's 83 counties, according to RevSix Data Systems, a Pontiac-based company that tracks absentee ballots for candidates.

With so many absentee ballots in circulation, the two major political parties are using a combination of complex voter databases, social media technology, mail advertising, phone calls and pavement-pounding foot soldiers to track the return of absentee votes.

"That's part of our strategy to make sure we're hitting that voter when they do receive that ballot and make sure they vote our way and they turn the ballot back in," said Lon Johnson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Democrats have partially bet their electoral success on getting more absentee votes from a pool 995,000 registered voters who sat out the 2010 mid-term election but tend to vote Democrat in presidential contests.

During the final three weekends of the campaign, Democrats and Republicans will deploy volunteers and paid employees to knock on doors of voters with absentee ballots to encourage their speedy return.

"It's a fine line you walk because some people get freaked out that you know they have an absentee ballot," said Matt Marsden, public affairs director for RevSix Data Systems.

In recent weeks, the campaigns of the major candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate have customized some advertising messages to appeal to older voters, who make up the majority of absentee voters.

"It's important to have momentum three to four to five weeks out because absentee voters will make their decisions early," said T.J. Bucholz, a Lansing Democratic political consultant. "In close races, absentee votes can matter."

Trading blows

Last week, Democrat Mark Schauer launched a TV ad railing against Gov. Rick Snyder's pension tax. Snyder's campaign sought to counter a Democratic Governors Association ad with teachers discussing cuts in their classroom with an ad featuring a retired female school teacher defending the governor's record on education funding.

The Michigan Republican Party also began airing an ad targeting Schauer for reduced Medicare spending under the Affordable Care Act, using an older actress in an appeal to seniors.

On Tuesday, the Republican Governors Association launched a new TV ad featuring images of senior citizens who argued Schauer's support in Congress for capping carbon emissions could lead to higher utility bills "just to stay warm."

"We try to figure out what issues motivate voters to vote and talk to them about those issues," said Mike Bir, political director for the Michigan Republican Party. "It's a significant focus of our (get-out-the-vote) effort."

The GOP focuses on chasing the absentee ballots of voters who have a propensity to vote Republican, which is determined based on their primary voting history, consumer data and micro-targeting on particular issues.

As absentee ballots get sent out by election clerks, political parties and candidate campaigns obtain their names and addresses from public records and start sending those voters targeted advertising in the mail, said Mark Grebner, an East Lansing political consultant who works for Democrats and Republicans.

"The wonderful thing about absentees is they have a ballot and they're sitting at home and, if you send them a piece of mail, they might read it alongside of their ballots," Grebner said.

Absentee numbers vary

The state's Bureau of Elections doesn't keep data about the number absentee ballots cast each year, a spokesman said.

But Grebner, who specializes in voter data, has culled election records to determine absentee voters cast about 15 percent of Michigan ballots in 2002, 19 percent in 2006 and 23.6 percent in 2010.

The numbers may not be exact, Grebner said, because Michigan has no uniform rules for processing the return and counting of absentee ballots. Some get mixed with regular ballots on Election Day, he said.

The state Democratic Party used the same data from clerks to determine 27 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election cast absentee ballots, Johnson said.

Using public records, political operatives can track the flow of ballots based on a person's gender, age range and tendency to be Republican or Democratic primary voters or ticket splitters, Marsden said.

Of the 126,536 absentee ballots that have been returned this year, 84 percent of them are voters ages 64 to 99, Marsden said.

Gary Cynowa, 67, of Macomb Township, said he and his wife sat at their kitchen table Sunday and filled out their ballots, with their votes generally being cast for Democratic candidates.

"It's more convenient," said Cynowa, a retired L'Anse Creuse middle school teacher. "It relieves that burden on you."

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How voters can get an absentee ballot

Registered voters can apply for an absentee ballot through their local city or township clerk if they are:

■Age 60 years old or older.

■Unable to vote without assistance at the polls.

■Expect to be out of town on Nov. 4.

■Are in jail awaiting arraignment or trial.

■Unable to go to the polls on Election Day due to religious reasons.

■Working as an election inspector outside of their precinct of residence.

Voters can search for their local clerk's contact information online at


Requests for getting an absent voter ballot mailed to you must be received by a voter's clerk no later than 2 p.m. the Saturday before the election.

Ballots must be returned to the local clerk by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Source: Michigan Secretary of State