Spike in absentee ballots highlight primary election
Greg Chandler and Luke Froncheck
Barry County voters took advantage of new Michigan election rules that make it easier to vote by absentee ballot and to register to vote on the day of the election during Tuesday's presidential primary.
The primary was the first major statewide election since Michigan voters in November 2018 approved a series of changes to state election laws that included being able to obtain an absentee ballot without having to provide a reason and being able to vote on the same day of registration. Barry County voters approved Proposal 3 by a 58-42 percent margin.
County Clerk Pam Palmer says, despite the changes, she was pleased with how the election turned out. “For the most part, we were clicking right along.”
Voter turnout in the primary countywide was 25.6 percent, down from the 2016 primary that involved contested races in both parties, when more than 30 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
A total of 12,148 ballots were cast countywide – 6,550 in the Democratic primary, 5,269 in the Republican primary.
In 2016, 10,216 voters in the county cast ballots in the Republican primary while 4,754 voted in the Democratic primary.
Former Vice President Joe Biden captured 54 percent of the Democratic votes, while Bernie Sanders received 35 percent. In the presidential primary four years ago, Sanders received 63 percent of Democratic votes in the county when Hillary Clinton was running for the nomination.
President Donald Trump received nearly 94 percent of the GOP primary votes this year. In 2016, Trump received just under 33 percent of votes in the Republican primary in the county, edging out U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas by 36 votes, 3,355-3,319.
Some local municipalities reported a significant spike in requests for absentee ballots. One township set up a designated board to handle the onslaught of absentee ballots.
Rutland Charter Township had almost 600 absentee ballots cast during Tuesday's election, tripling the number they had during the last election. Of the township's 3,100 registered voters, around 22 percent are on the permanent absentee ballot list. The number of absentee ballots cast in Rutland outnumbered the amount of ballots cast by people coming into vote at one of the precincts.
With their number of absentee ballots already high, the township board approved the creation of an absentee ballot voting board to help move the evenings ballot counting along.
Township Clerk Robin Hawthorne said that the newly established board was a “godsend” that allowed her and her election workers to get home on election day around two hours earlier. While normal voting was taking place, the new absentee ballot counting board processed ballots throughout the afternoon, cutting time that Hawthorne and her team would have taken to process ballots after polls closed Tuesday evening.
In Thornapple Township, absentee requests doubled from the last presidential primary in 2016. The township issued 602 absentee ballots, compared to the 300 or so it used to receive before the change in state law, Township Clerk Cindy Willshire said.
Orangeville Township saw requests for absentee ballots more than double.
“A year ago, we had maybe 230-some absentee voters. Now we have over 500,” Township Clerk Mel Risner said. “We've got more absentees returns than we normally send out (in) applications.”
Risner reported things went very well, even with the increased numbers of absentee ballots. There was at least one minor glitch that got resolved, she said.
“We had a person show up who had a voter registration card, and then it said she wasn't in our e-poll book, so we had to put her in our e-poll book, and later the state of Michigan sent us a notice that she should have been in our e-poll book, but by then she had already voted,” Risner said.
Elsewhere in the county, Hope Township Clerk Deb Jackson reported a similar increase in turnout. Township election workers saw about 800 ballots cast between walk-in and absentee ballots, compared to only 447 during the 2012 primary season. Jackson said she was comparing her numbers to that primary season because during the 2016 election both parties had a primary while in 2012 there was only one, similar to now.
In Yankee Springs Township, absentee ballot requests increased 25 percent to 572 ballots. Election inspector Marge VanderMeyden says the township ran into some issues with voters who registered in the last few days prior to the election. Because of technical glitches, those names did not appear on the township's master list.
“They ended up voting, but it took quite a bit of finagling and work to get them in there correctly,” VanderMeyden said.
VanderMeyden reported at least five such instances as of Tuesday afternoon, four at the township hall location and a fifth at the township fire station.
Palmer reported that a precinct in Prairieville Township had trouble balancing its election numbers, and that her office is looking into it. “We really don't know what the problem was,” she said.
Barry Township Clerk Debra Knight described the Tuesday election as a “good busy day.”
The township experienced steady voter turnout throughout the day. The board of trustees recently consolidated township voting to one precinct in Delton, closing the polling station in Hickory Corners. Knight said they hadn't experienced any problems because of the change.
At the Left Field Cafe in Middleville, owner Johnny DeMaagd gave away free cookies to anyone who presented a sticker indicating they had voted. As of early afternoon on Tuesday, he had given about “several dozen” cookies.
“I think it's important to get people out to exercise their civil duty, and what better incentive than fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies?” DeMaagd asked. “We've had the oven going pretty much nonstop today.”
The Barry County Board of Canvassers met Wednesday afternoon to begin certifying the election results. The process is expected to continue Thursday, Palmer said.