Michigan’s most Democratic counties are among those that have returned the most absentee ballots so far in an election that is shattering turnout records, according to a Bridge analysis of state records.
That may bolster Democrats’ hope for a big year up and down the ballot, as counties that favored Democrat Hillary Clinton in her 2016 presidential campaign are disproportionately returning ballots.
Experts caution that doesn't mean GOP voters won’t turn out in huge numbers to vote in person on Election Day, Nov. 3.
“Republicans are putting all their marbles on Election Day right now,” said Richard Czuba, founder of polling firm Glengariff Group.
“But because of the passage of the 2018 constitutional amendment allowing no-reason absentee, the game has shifted. Every day for 30 days prior has been an Election Day in Michigan, and Republicans are banking on one day when Democrats have been working — as we see in these absentee numbers — on every day of the election.”
State election officials predict Michigan could break the record of 5 million votes set in 2008, and two-thirds of those votes could be by mail.
More than 1.5 million people have already voted absentee, half of the 3 million people who have requested ballots so far.
“I believe this is a hopeful story. It’s not a partisan story, we see citizens on both sides of the aisle taking advantage of these opportunities and that’s really a great thing,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told reporters Tuesday.
What the numbers show
Bridge’s analysis shows that about 60 percent of the ballots returned through Monday came from eight counties that Clinton won in 2016, nearly 900,000 of the 1.5 million ballots.
Of the 19 counties where Republican President Trump got 65 percent of the vote or more in 2016, 14.6 percent of registered voters have returned a mail-in ballot.
In the counties Clinton won, the return rate is 20.8 percent.
And in Detroit, which favored Clinton by 95 percent of the vote in 2016, 73,000 voters — nearly half of those who sought ballots — have already returned them.
The heaviest voting, of course, largely aligns with the state’s population centers, but pollsters from both parties told Bridge the results reflect what they are seeing statewide.
Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster, said he’s found that 70 percent of voters who have returned absentee ballots indicate they are voting for Democrat Joe Biden. Those planning to vote on Election Day favor Trump 55 percent to 33 percent, Mitchell said.
Mark Grebner, a Democratic consultant, said Democrats are generally more likely to vote absentee regardless of where they live, but “as to how that affects the ultimate outcome of the election, I don’t know if it will.”
The GOP has traditionally had an “extraordinary” mail-in voting program in Michigan for decades, Czuba said. Senior citizens are more likely to vote Republican, and the party had a robust “chase program” to ensure those voters mailed in their ballots.
However, Trump has consistently derided mail-in voting throughout the election season, saying without proof that they will contribute to widespread voter fraud. That makes it harder for the Republican Party to leverage their existing operation to take advantage of the expanded rights.
“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” said Dennis Darnoi, a GOP political consultant who also tracks absentee ballots closely and is seeing similar trends.
“From the Republican standpoint, it’s a shame because they do have a robust AVB program here in the state and to leave it on the sideline in this race, especially when he needs to win this state, I think was a serious miscalculation.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are more likely to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic and a 2018 constitutional amendment allowing no-reason absentee voting.
Stock up on coffee
Czuba and others caution that both Democrats and Republicans are eager to vote, and record turnout means there could be many first-time voters.
“I don’t think anybody can quite say for certainty who those extra people are coming into the system,” Czuba said. “There are a lot of unknowns with a turnout of this size.”
Political observers should “stock up on coffee” because it takes longer to process and count absentee ballots than in-person ballots, said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.
Initial results are likely to reflect a Republican lead from those in-person votes that are tabulated faster, while the count of absentee votes trickle in, slowly turning the results more Democratic.
“Then you’re going to get all kinds of conspiracy theories that the race is being stolen,” Mitchell said.
But voters should be prepared to wait for an accurate picture of election results, Byrum said.