With less than a week before the polls open on election day, Michigan is on track to see a significant increase in absentee voting.
But just which candidate, or what issues, that benefits is anyone's guess. More than 1,247,000 Michigan voters have requested absentee ballots, an increase of more than 265,000 from four years ago; and 918,992 of those ballots have been returned, which is up more than 245,000 from this point in the 2012 election.
A trend that may worry the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton: While many local clerks are reporting big spikes in absentee voting, the city of Detroit, where Clinton is counting on a big turnout among African-American voters on Nov. 8, is reporting slower than usual requests and returns of absentee ballots, despite having four satellite voting locations open across the city.
“Absentee ballots are a little modest this year,” said Daniel Baxter, director of elections for the city, noting that 54,460 have been issued and 38,796 have been returned.
That compares with 81,000 voters casting absentee ballots in 2012, leading Baxter to predict: “If I were to use those numbers as a barometer for what turnout might be on election day, I’m thinking 45% to 48%. And typically, we would exceed 50%.”
“The city of Detroit is predominantly African-American, and when President Obama ran in 2008 every person, every Detroiter, felt a need to go to the polls on Election Day,” Baxter said. “Then in 2012, we saw the same phenomenon. This election, I think that what we're seeing right now is a lack of enthusiasm as a result of President Obama not being on the ballot."
Turnout in the city of Detroit in 2012 was 53% and the vast majority of the votes — 98% — went to President Barack Obama’s re-election race over Republican Mitt Romney. Those numbers aren’t expected to change much with recent polling in Michigan showing Clinton with a substantial lead, getting 88% of the black vote surveyed for the poll. Trump’s numbers were so small among African Americans that they don’t register.
Sandra Cavette, 69, was one of a steady stream of people dropping off ballots at Detroit’s election office last week. As someone who lived through the civil rights movement, she can’t imagine sitting an election out, but this one is especially important.
“It is critical this year, because so much is at stake. There may be three or four appointments to the Supreme Court,” she said. “And jobs are starting to come back so we need to continue the same type of economic policies that we have now.”
Her vote went for Clinton because of her qualifications and experience, and she fears that a Trump presidency would further erode voting rights.
“He talks about getting people out to watch the polls,” she said. “Well, we cannot retreat to the day when I had to count the beans in the bottle to pass a literacy test.”
Mary Ann Simon, 82, of Harrison Township, mailed her absentee ballot back to her local clerk the day after she received it in September and voted for Trump because she can’t stand Clinton.
“She’s for partial birth abortion and I’m pro-life. My conscience wouldn’t let me support any Democrat if they’re not pro-life,” she said. “I’m disappointed with the way Trump acts and talks. He really frightened me at first, but we have to give him a chance because he’s a businessman.”
Of the ballots requested by Democrats, 75.5% have been returned; while 70.3% of the absentee ballots requested by Republicans have come back, said Mark Grebner of the East Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting, which tracks voters. Those partisan leanings were mostly gleaned by how people voted in the presidential primary election, where voters had to ask for either a Republican or Democratic ballot.
But the Republicans have been gaining on the Dems in terms of the rate of ballot returns, Grebner said. And GOP voters could catch up to or be within a few percentage points by election day.
Local clerks around metro Detroit are reporting big leaps in absentee voting. And some are reporting increased numbers of people who have already turned in their ballot, but want to change how they voted.
In Livonia, where requests for absentee ballots have already exceeded the entire number for 2012, 118 people have come in to “spoil” their ballots for a variety of reasons, including inadvertent mistakes, forgetting to cast votes on the back side of the ballot, or changing their mind about who they voted for, said city Clerk Susan Nash.
“We’ve had four or five of those in the last two days,” she said. “Michigan is one of the few states where people can change their minds.”
West Bloomfield Clerk Catherine Shaughnessy said people are hanging on to their ballot longer than usual this year as the twists and turns of the presidential race have voters waiting to cast their ballots.
“Boy, oh boy, we’ve spoiled a lot of ballots this year,” she said, adding that voters may have “messed up” their ballots or could be changing their minds. “And I’ve had an unprecedented number of people tell me that their ballot is sitting on their kitchen table. So I think we’re going to see a lot of people waiting until election day and voting at their precinct.”
Warren hasn’t had an uptick in voters changing their minds, said city Clerk Paul Wojno, but there has been a big increase in the number of absentee voters with 3,000 more people asking for absentee ballots than the 13,000 absentee voters in 2012. The city sent letters to any voters over age 60 to see if they wanted to be put on a permanent absentee voter list.
“And we got 3,000 responses to that letter,” he said. “But there’s also a particular interest in this election. There’s always an uptick when we have no incumbent in the White House on the ballot.”
For Harrison Township Clerk Adam Wit, the number of absentee voters went from just over 3,000 to 4,800 this year.
“It’s been steady every day in here and I expect to have lines on Saturday,” he said, noting an increase in voter turnout could also be due to a competitive state House race in the township, as well as township resident Candice Miller being on the ballot for Public Works Commissioner against Anthony Marrocco that might be drawing people to the polls.
All local clerks’ offices will be open until 2 p.m. Saturday for people to request an absentee ballot. Voting booths will be set up so voters can mark their ballots and leave them with the clerk. Several clerks around metro Detroit have been open for several recent Saturdays for absentee voters.
In Troy, residents have been able to vote absentee the past two Saturdays, and city Clerk Aileen Dickson said that may cut down on the number of people voting absentee this Saturday.
Pat Christensen, 73, dropped her absentee ballot off at a drop box set up in front of Troy City Hall on Saturday. The Troy resident said the one word she’d use to describe this election is “sad.”
“It’s not about what they’re standing for,” Christensen said. “It’s putting down the other person, and it’s just not what I’ve known elections to be.”
She described herself as a “Republican with a small r,” explaining she votes for the person, not the party. And this year, that translated into a vote for Clinton.
Anyone who wants an absentee ballot mailed to them must have their request in to their local clerk by 2 p.m. Saturday. Voters can ask for an absentee ballot on Monday, but will have to mark their ballot and leave it with the clerk that day. For people who still have absentee ballots, they can be turned in at their local clerk’s office up until 8 p.m. Tuesday. Absentee voters who want to change the votes they've already cast have until 4 p.m. Monday to do that at local clerks' offices.