Huge Michigan Voter Turnout Could Turn Into National Embarrassment

January 17, 2020by Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press (TNS)
Voters stand in line waiting to cast their ballot at Bow Elementary school on Michigan midterm elections day in Detroit on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS)

DETROIT — Two Michigan elections experts have some record-breaking predictions for 2020 that could end up putting Michigan in a potentially embarrassing national spotlight.

Chris Thomas, the former Michigan director of elections at the Secretary of State’s Office, said Michigan is on track for a record-breaking turnout in 2020, reaching up to 5.3 million voters. The last time Michigan came anywhere close to that total was 2008 when 5 million Michiganders cast ballots.

Mark Grebner, the founder of the East Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting, which tracks voters and voting trends in Michigan, had an even more eye-popping prediction of 6 million votes in November.

“Turnout is going to be huge,” Grebner said. “And there are going to be big problems.”

They both cited the enthusiasm shown in the 2018 election cycle when a record 4.3 million voters cast ballots in an off-year election. That total busted the previous record by more than a half-million votes and both expect that the controversial presidency of Donald Trump will only see higher than normal civic engagement rates in 2020.

“This election is going to be so defining that the turnout is going to be on the same trajectory as the 2018 election,” Thomas said.

Adding hundreds of thousands of voters, many of whom will now be able to cast their ballots by voting absentee, will overwhelm local clerks with ballots that they can’t begin counting until 7 a.m. on Election Day.

And that could translate into Michigan not being able to tally and announce the results of the 2020 election until a day or two after the polls close on Nov. 3, said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

“Due to the great increase in voting by mail, without a change in law, it is likely that clerks across the state won’t be able to finish counting ballots on election night,” she said in a statement.

Consider, the largest turnout in Michigan’ history was 2008, when 5,039,080 people cast ballots and Barack Obama won the presidency. The last two presidential elections had 4.7 million voters in 2012 and 4.8 million in 2016.

In the last 20 years in off-year elections, when the governor’s office is up for grabs, the number of votes cast has ranged from 2.6 million to 3.8 million votes until 2018, when 4.3 million voters swamped polling places and gave Democrats big wins in federal, state and local elections.

In 2018, Michigan voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot proposal that allows anyone to vote by absentee ballot and the numbers in 2019 elections across the state showed that voters took advantage of the new privilege with some communities reporting 50%, 60%, even 80% of residents voting absentee.

In addition, the new law allows people to register to vote — and cast ballots — through Election Day, meaning clerks will be tied up with that responsibility, too, as they’re trying to run the election and count the new flood of absentee ballots. The old law cut off voting registration 30 days before an election.

It’s a recipe for the state and nation to be collectively holding its breath on election night and the days beyond, waiting for final results.

“I would not be surprised if we don’t know the results Tuesday night,” Thomas said. “Let’s see how far into Wednesday it will go.”

In 2020, such a delay could be decisive. In 2016, Michigan was one of three states that delivered the electoral votes needed to deliver the presidency to Republican Donald Trump by narrow margins. All three states — Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were the other two — had traditionally voted for Democrats in presidential races, including Michigan, which had gone blue every election cycle dating to 1992. In 2016, however, state voters chose Trump by 10,704 votes out of 4.8 million votes cast, the smallest margin in the country.

There’s a simple solution, Benson said.

“Allow clerks to begin counting absentee ballots before Election Day so that they can spend it ensuring our elections are secure and all ballots are accurately counted,” she said.

Benson testified before the House Elections and Ethics committee last year that clerks should be able to start preparing and running absentee ballots through tabulators four days before the election.

At least 28 states allow clerks to either process absentee ballots by removing them from envelopes and preparing them to run through tabulators on Election Day or process and tabulate votes before Election Day, according to the National Council on State Legislatures.

Michigan clerks are not allowed to do either.

Michigan legislators have introduced some bills to help ease local clerks’ burdens, but none have addressed how to deal with the surge in absentee voting or registering to vote on Election Day. One key lawmaker, former Secretary of State and current Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, doesn’t think clerks should process or count absentee ballots before Election Day.

Grebner’s prediction comes with a warning, especially for clerks in heavily populated areas who will see an enormous influx of absentee ballots and late voter registrations

“Cities won’t be able to have satellite city halls on Election Day to help with registrations,” he said. “So everyone who wants to register and vote on Election Day will have to go to city hall. I don’t know how you process 10,000 people on Election Day in Detroit.”

The first real test of the new laws will come on March 10, when Michiganders will vote in the presidential primary. And that, too, will be confusing for voters, who have to ask for either a Republican or Democratic ballot.

Currently, there are 15 Democrats and four Republicans on the two ballots. But the presidential candidates had until Dec. 13 to withdraw from the ballot, so there are four Democrats — Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Marianne Williamson and Joe Sestak — and one Republican, Mark Sanford, who have dropped out of the race, but will still be on the primary ballot.

The early voting states are sure to whittle the field down even further, so Michigan voters may want to wait until after the so-called “Super Tuesday” to cast absentee ballots in order to avoid voting for someone who is no longer in the race. On March 3, a week before Michigan’s presidential primary, 14 states, American Samoa and Democrats abroad will hold their presidential primary elections.

Candidates who are still in the presidential race and on Michigan’s primary ballot: Democratic U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet; former Vice President Joe Biden; businessmen Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney; on the Republican side: President Donald Trump, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh. Democrat Deval Patrick, also a former governor of Massachusetts, is still in the presidential race, but didn’t get enough petition signatures to qualify to be on Michigan’s ballot.


©2020 Detroit Free Press

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