LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Last-ditch efforts are in motion to spur people to the polls on Tuesday. This election, Michigan voters may not need prodding.
The number of absentee ballots issued and returned statewide is up by more than 50 percent from the same point in 2014 — a signal that voter enthusiasm is high. Midterm turnout typically is in the neighborhood of 3.2 million. The state’s former longtime elections director estimated 4 million will vote, which would be the highest midterm turnout on a percentage basis in nearly 50 years.
Clerks are ordering more ballots, hiring more precinct workers and amassing more voting booths to accommodate extra voters, including many who will take longer without the ability to check a single box to automatically vote for all candidates of one party.
Voting expert Mark Grebner said while absentee voting has been on the rise due to an aging population, only a small portion of the spike in absentee ballot requests is from people who otherwise would have voted on Election Day. He predicted as many as 1 million sporadic voters who sat out the 2014 and 2010 elections may vote, bringing turnout to 4.2 million for the first midterm of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“Everybody’s kind of wound up about this election,” said Grebner, who summed up the reason: “Trump. Trump. Trump.”
Absentee ballot requests are approaching, even surpassing levels seen in higher-turnout presidential years. They are up everywhere — in conservative, liberal and middle-road areas.
As of Saturday, Ingham County — the home of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer — had issued 35,200 absentee ballots and had received 29,200 back, roughly 70 percent more than in 2014. The number of absentee ballots cast in Ingham is on pace to top 2016. County Clerk Barb Byrum said it is a “strong indicator of what voter engagement and voter turnout are going to look like on Election Night.”
Higher turnout is crucial for Democrats because younger voters and voters of color tend to stay home in non-presidential elections, making the midterm electorate older, whiter and more Republican-tilting.
“Republicans are pretty consistent on turnout. They don’t vary widely. Frankly, one of the reasons Republicans do so well in a non-presidential year is Democrats don’t show up to vote,” said GOP strategist Tom Shields.
That changed in the August primary, when more than 1.1 million people voted in the Democratic gubernatorial contest, double the number in the 2010 race.
Chris Thomas, who was the state elections director for 36 years, said he usually does not put much credence in primary turnout but was struck by how the number of first-time voters was “much higher” than in any previous primary. He pointed to millennial-heavy places like suburban Detroit’s Ferndale and Royal Oak, where so many voters showed that precincts ran short on ballots.
“I did view that that was reflective of sort of a climate out there, and that people have been waiting impatiently to make a vote,” Thomas said.
Taking no chances, candidates are crisscrossing the state to mobilize voters. Top-of-the-ticket contenders such as Whitmer, GOP rival Bill Schuette, Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Republican challenger John James planned to spend much of Sunday in vote-rich metro Detroit.
Democrats and outside liberal groups say they are in the midst of unparalleled attempts to galvanize people from the sidelines after Republicans’ eight-year run controlling state government and Trump’s razor-thin victory here. Michigan is among 11 targeted states for NextGen America, an advocacy group supported by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. It is spending $3.5 million to register and mobilize young voters to help elect Whitmer, re-elect Stabenow and flip three GOP-held House seats.
The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, is focused on turning out LGBTQ voters and their allies in Michigan and five other states. The predominantly labor-financed For Our Future group has 200 paid staff on the ground, some who have knocked doors since May.
Spokesman Josh Pugh said the scale of the operation — combined with the level of sustained involvement — are “unprecedented” for independent organizing outside the traditional party and union operations.
“The idea that someone like Donald Trump could capture a majority of the state’s voters, especially when he did not capture a majority of the country’s voters, has really been a wakeup call for a lot of the Democratic grassroots to get activated, to get involved,” he said.
Republicans say their own permanent, data-driven ground game helped Trump carry the state, eclipses Democrats’ efforts and is built around a team of more than 1,000 trained volunteer neighborhood leaders — a model intended to limit having people parachute in late from other places. GOP officials know the president’s party typically faces rough sledding in his first midterm and Democrats are especially energized, but they say they have doubled their doors knocked and phone calls since 2016.
“The mantra is defy history and that’s really what we’re trying to do,” said Steven Ostrow, a regional political director for the Republican National Committee.
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