With just over five weeks to go before the Nov. 8 election, Michigan — one of the few states to lose population in the last 10 years — is falling behind where the state was in 2012 and 2008 in voter registration totals.
The total number of registered voters for this presidential cycle as of mid-September was 7,398,267, according to Secretary of State records. And that’s roughly 50,000 fewer people than in 2012 and 70,000 less than 2008.
“But people still have two weeks to register to vote,” said Fred Woodhams, spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. “That number will go up.”
Local clerks, the Secretary of State and partisan groups — mostly those affiliated with Democrats — are stepping up their efforts to make sure every eligible voter is signed up before the Oct. 11 deadline to register to vote for the Nov. 8 election.
And that poses its own challenges.
Michigan already has a very high rate of voters registered, with 97% of the 7.6 million people eligible to vote in the state already registered in 2014. In Detroit, groups have turned in about 5,000 voter-registration cards this election cycle, said Daniel Baxter, director of elections for the City of Detroit. Of those, only about 10%-15% are brand-new voters. The rest are either changing their address or have already registered and won’t be counted as additional voters in the city.
So signing up new voters will rely mainly on targeting college campuses and even high schools.
The Secretary of State’s mobile registration office is wrapping up its visits to college campuses next week with trips to Michigan State and Eastern Michigan universities and the University of Michigan. So far, those visits have registered more than 900 new voters.
Local clerks are looking for even younger voters.
Livonia City Clerk Susan Nash will head to the three high schools in the city this week to catch up with students who will be 18 by election day.
“Our voter registration is up almost 1,000 since I took office on Jan. 1,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of voter registration drives. And I’ll be at the high schools during their lunch hours.”
Troy City Clerk Aileen Dickson has activated what she calls her REV program: Register, Educate and Vote.
“We had a few hundred students register last spring. And we’re getting a similar turnout this time around,” she said. “We’re talking about elections, how to get ballots, and encouraging people to get out to vote when the election actually comes up.”
Democrats and the campaign for their presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have been fanning out across the state to make sure as many people are registered as possible. A higher turnout on election day tends to favor Democrats, and Clinton is still trying to attract many of the young voters that were drawn to her rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primary election.
The Clinton campaign has brought in music and movie personalities, enlisted politicians like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to help with the registration drives, and is hitting both traditional and unconventional spots such as high school football games, concerts, taco trucks and neighborhood festivals to sign up new voters.
On Saturday morning, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democratic presidential candidate who dropped out of the race after the Iowa caucuses, rallied a couple hundred Clinton volunteers before they dispersed across Oakland County to register voters.
"We have until Oct. 11 to register people to vote, and we know that in a lot of other states, they’re putting barriers up for people to vote," he said. "Part of the psychology of Donald Trump is to suppress the vote and make people feel that they don’t matter."
Republicans aren’t doing specific voter registration drives, said Sarah Anderson, spokeswoman for the Michigan Republican Party, but they are making sure that when volunteers knock on doors with campaign literature — so far, 400,000 contacts have been made — that everyone eligible to vote in the households gets signed up.
“We’re not doing anything like the Democrats are doing with voter registration drives,” she said. “But we’re encouraging our voters in concert with our door-to-door efforts.”
The efforts come as absentee ballots are getting mailed out to voters who meet the criteria to vote by absentee ballot. Detroit already has sent out 31,000 ballots and expect that number to grow to 90,000 by November.
In Troy, nearly 7,500 people have requested absentee ballots, and Dickson said she expects that number to grow to 15,000 in the coming weeks.
Livonia’s first batch of absentee ballots will total about 8,000 and is expected to double, Nash said.
Statewide, about 25% of the registered voters cast their ballots by absentee vote, Woodhams said. Voters are supposed to use one of six reasons to be eligible to vote absentee:
- Age 60 years old or older.
- Unable to vote without assistance at the polls.
- Expecting to be out of town on election day.
- In jail awaiting arraignment or trial.
- Unable to attend the polls due to religious reasons.
- Appointed to work as an election inspector in a precinct outside the precinct of residence.
Most clerks will have some form of early voting, setting up voting booths in city halls, so people can pick up their absentee ballots, cast their votes and turn them in all on the same day. In Detroit, four satellite offices —in the northwest and southwest sections of the city, the Rosa Parks Transportation Center downtown and the elections office on Grand Boulevard in the New Center area — will start being open and available for absentee voting on Oct. 11.
“We’re probably on par to be where we were in 2008, when 77,000 people voted by absentee. In 2012, we counted 80,000,” Baxter said. “And we believe that when satellite voting commences, those numbers will begin to look like 2012, if not higher.”
Voters can get an absentee ballot by contacting their local clerk and filling out an application for the ballot.
There is a regional transit millage in metro Detroit and school issue elections on many ballots this year, but nothing is generating buzz like the presidential race, said Nash.
“There is a lot of interest in the race everywhere you go. I don’t ever remember having people talk about a debate like it’s the Super Bowl,” she said.
Both Republicans and Democrats have aggressive efforts to contact people getting absentee ballots both by phone and in person. Both parties have access to the lists of people getting those ballots so campaign literature is getting mailed out now, right in time for absentee voters to learn more about the candidates.
"We're getting daily updates. We work with county parties and pull lists off the Secretary of State website," Anderson said. "We're aggressively reaching out to those voters."
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)