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Analysis: Absentee voting gave Democrats big lead before Election Day

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  • Democrats prove far more likely to vote absentee
  • Absentee ballots made up roughly 40 percent of all votes in Michigan
  • In 2018, before no-reason absentee, they made up 27 percent

Democrats continue to use absentee ballots more often in Michigan, Tuesday’s election shows, raising questions about the timing of campaign strategies and last-minute media blitzes.

A Bridge Michigan analysis of in-person and absentee votes from four counties strongly suggests Democrats had the advantage in absentee votes this fall.

 

Most counties do not break down voting by in-person and absentee, nor does the state.

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Among those that did, including two of the four largest counties in the state, Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won the absentee portion in each, according to an analysis of results from Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties.

But election day majorities for Republican Tudor Dixon pushed her to wins in Livingston and Monroe counties while in Macomb County, Whitmer won absentee ballots, lost the in-person vote and won overall. In Oakland, she won absentee, walk-ins and the overall vote. 

Roughly 40 percent of voters cast an absentee ballot this year — 1.8 million of over 4.45 million total votes. That’s up markedly since 2018, when voters approved no-reason absentee. In that election, absentee voters made up 27 percent of the 4.25 million voters. 

Put another way: Whitmer got half or more of her total votes via absentee ballots in Macomb, Livingston and Oakland counties, among the most populous in the state. Dixon, on the other hand, got between 23 and 34 percent of her totals, exposing her potentially to the impact of bad weather or a crucial late development.

What does it mean?

Hundreds of thousands of voters had already cast ballots before the second of two debates on Oct. 25 and Whitmer probably had a sizable lead among those voters based on outcomes in the four counties analyzed by Bridge.

As of Oct. 24, the day before the debate, over 770,000 absentee ballots had been returned to election clerks and nearly 1.8 million total already had been sent to voters.

That’s important because although the state allows you to change your absentee vote, few do, and most would not have seen Whitmer’s stumble when she said Michigan school children missed “only three months” because of the pandemic.

Her COVID-19 order covered three months but most parents watching the debate would remember many more months in 2020 and even 2021 where their children were learning via computer from home because of local district decisions.

Dixon and her allies made that snippet part of late advertising. But those ads ran after a big proportion of the estimated 1.8 million absentee voters had likely cast ballots.

Shortly after winning the Republican nomination, Dixon was well aware about the impact of absentee voting and accused Whitmer of “hiding” from voters when she would not agree to debates before voters could begin requesting mail-in ballots on Sept. 24.

It wasn’t always this way

Two things have happened to change absentee voting patterns. One, Michigan voters in 2018 overwhelmingly agreed to open up absentee voting to everyone. No longer did you have to be 60 or older or have one of six reasons, like being out of town.

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The other occurred in 2020, when then President Trump, a Republican, began assailing mail-in voting, though he voted by mail himself. At one point, his campaign filed a lawsuit to try and stop Nevada from conducting its 2020 election by mail.

Trump continually derided the process and ultimately many Republicans followed his lead and voted in person. Then, as general election results showed him winning, his supporters filed lawsuits in several states, including Michigan, asking that counting stop before all ballots were counted. Those lawsuits failed.

Before 2020, Republicans were more likely to use absentee ballots. In Macomb County in 2018, for instance, former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, got 3,000 more absentee votes than Whitmer, yet lost the county to her when she more than made up those votes, winning walk-in voters by over 15,000 votes.

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