2012 primary draws typically low voter response

The 2012 August primary continued a long trend in Michigan -- of voters abandoning the ballot box.

The unofficial statewide turnout of 1,498,100 voters -- or just 20.4 percent of those registered. Since 1978, the turnout in summer primaries has ranged from a low of 15.1 percent in 1990 (a gubernatorial election year) to a high of 24.4 percent in 1982 (also a gubernatorial election year).

Election after election, though, about 80 percent of registered voters just don't even bother

"I had estimated that we’d see 17 percent to 20 percent turnout in this year’s primary, and that’s not a big number. I had hoped it would not go much lower, and in fact, had hoped that even more people would turn out," said Douglas B. Roberts, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

Top 10 counties by turnout percentageOscoda -- 39.5
Leelanau -- 36.6*
Luce – 36.5
Benzie – 35.0
Iron – 34.4
Missaukee – 34.2
Montmorency - 33.9
Mackinac – 33.5
Mason – 32.9
Ontonagon – 30.3

Bottom 10 counties for turnout percentage

Menominee – 12.9
Muskegon – 13.7
Houghton – 13.9
Kalamazoo – 14.1
Isabella – 15.4
Kent – 15.8
Ionia – 15.9
Calhoun – 16.0
Washtenaw – 16.2
Kalkaska – 16.2

"Why would people not show up at the polls? If the reason is apathy, that’s truly unfortunate," he added. "The primary is where many questions and many offices are going to be settled. Those local questions, like local transportation and local education millages, will not come up again in November. Those primary decisions have a large impact on county, on city offices and on local judgeships. I repeat, these local ballot questions will not come up again in November.

"If you think your vote does not count, you’re wrong. One vote can make a difference."

In Oscoda County, nearly 40 percent (39.5) of registered voters turned out Aug. 7, about double the statewide rate and probably driven heavily by a list of six separate county millage proposals. Four of the six proposals were approved by the voters; one that failed, regarding ambulance equipment lost by nine votes out of 2,415 cast (unofficially), going to Roberts' point about every vote counting.

A similar theme is found in Montmorency County, which had the sixth-highest turnout rate, at 33.9 percent.

Cheryl Neilsen, clerk in Montmorency, noted that almost all of the county offices were contested in the primary. Voters there also had two millage renewals, plus a new millage proposal to fund operations for the sheriff's department. The sheriff levy passed by 200 votes, out of 2,538 cast in unofficial results.

Menonimee County, on the western shore of Lake Michigan, had the "distinction" of being last in voter turnout in 2012 (at 12.9 percent) and in 2010 (at 9.6 percent).

A key legislator on election rules does not see this month's results as evidence for big action in Lansing, however.

"I don’t think you necessarily do too much," said Rep. Pete Lund, chairman of the House Redistricting and Elections Committee. "Right now, I think we have made it pretty easy to come out. Media do good job. It’s just unfortunate that so many don’t come out."

Roberts did see one silver lining in the cloud of poor statewide turnout:

"I’m very proud that in this primary, 17 of our Michigan Political Leadership Program graduates will appear on the November ballot seeking state House seats. This is an especially large number -- second-highest in MPLP history."

* Correction: Leelenau's results were left out of the original version of the Top 10 list.

Senior Editor Derek Melot joined Bridge Magazine in 2011 after serving as an assistant editorial page editor, columnist and reporter at the Lansing State Journal, where he covered state and local issues extensively, earning awards from the Associated Press and Michigan Press Association. The Oklahoma native moved to Michigan in 1999.

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Tue, 08/14/2012 - 9:25am
Maybe the fact that there is such apathy toward the primaries is that there really are no candidates worth voting for. We see the same names time after time. Even with term limits, the office they are running for just changes. We hear the same message time after time. Cut taxes or milk the rich. It is time for an open primary. An open primary would increase turnout, and perhaps even break the back of the two party system. By open primary, I mean everyone running for an office is on the ballot, and the top two vote getters go on to the election, be they two democrats, two republicans, a democrat and a libertarian, or whatever. Candidates would be forced to tell us why we should vote for them. With the two party system, all we hear is that the other candidate is bad. Personally, I am really excited about candidates who bring new thinking into the political process. If something is broken, don't try to band-aid it or postpone the problem. Fix it with different ideas. Steven Henderson had a terrific article on the Newark, NJ mayor putting long term solutions into place. You may disagree, but Gov. Snyder solved the state budget crises. Mayor Bing has good ideas for Detroit. The world is changing fast and the mantra for everyone should be 'change or die'. And lastly, there should be a law that all millage requests can only go on a major election. No more sneaking them into the low turnout primaries.
Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:13am
Is there any data on what the turnout was in Detroit specifically, not just Wayne county?
Nick Glauch
Tue, 08/14/2012 - 10:40am
As an economist, I attribute the low turn-out to a logical decision made by each voter. People would be engaged if it made sense for them to engage, but the reality is that the current primary system is confusing and exclusive. The fact is that Michigan is a de-facto closed primary, where voters' choice of a ballot is broadcast to each political party. Further, since you have to stick to one side of the ballot, half of the voters are basically barred from expressing their opinion about races uncontested on their side. In Mecosta County, 82% of offices were won in that primary, with only the Republican half of that 21% having input on that decision. If we want greater turn-out, we need to move to make voting easier and clearer for people - you should have a secret ballot selection and have the option of writing a ballot that reflects your opinion of all the candidates running, regardless of party.