Record Turnout for Michigan Primary Despite Virus

The Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing. (Photo via Brian Charles Watson/Wikipedia Commons)

DETROIT (CN) — As a record number of Michigan citizens cast their votes Tuesday via absentee ballot to confirm their choices amid a continuing pandemic, the primary could work as a dry run for the November election.

The large number of absentee ballots was not based solely on Covid-19. In 2018, Proposal 3 passed and allowed citizens to apply for the ballot without a compelling reason. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, ran with the concept and in May sent out absentee applications to every registered voter in the state.

“For the last 19 months my administration has worked every day in concert with our local clerks and national experts to implement the state constitutional rights our voters enacted overwhelmingly in 2018,” Benson said. “I am hopeful that state lawmakers will similarly work to fulfill the will of our voters with needed statutory changes before November.”

In the race for a U.S. Senate seat, incumbent Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Republican challenger John James were running unopposed. With vote information coming in slowly, at 10:30 p.m. the Secretary of State website reported 4,303 votes for Peters and 13,533 for James.

In another race of interest, incumbent Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., faced off against Democrat Brenda Jones, a Detroit Councilwoman. Tlaib was victorious by a slim margin in 2018 when she was elected to Michigan’s 13th District. 

She, along with Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., became the first Muslim women to serve in Congress. Tlaib was also the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Jones beat Tlaib in a special primary when Democrat John Conyers died in 2019 but lost to Tlaib in the primary for the regular election. Tlaib then ran unopposed to win her seat.

With results trickling in at 10:00 p.m., Tlaib held a 2-1 lead over Jones, 6,264 votes to 3,187. 

According to Secretary of State spokesman Jake Rollow, about 1.5 million absentee ballots have been returned from more than 2 million issued. That number approaches the 2.2 million votes cast in the 2018 primary, the highest primary turnout on record in Michigan. In the November 2016 election, 1.27 million absentee ballots were processed.

Despite that preparation, the ballots mailed back by voters could not be opened until Election Day according to state laws. Benson is convinced that delays are inevitable.

“Right now our clerks…cannot even open envelopes or arrange ballots for tabulation until the morning of Election Day,” she said at a press conference last Wednesday. “All data suggests we are talking about at least one or two more days before we get the results.”

Benson and Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer sent out an email last Thursday to state employees and encouraged them to take a vacation day to help process ballots. 

Rollow said that “a couple hundred” state employees signed up to work. The workers began virtual training but may be required to do more extensive learning according to their jurisdiction.

City of Detroit Clerk Janice Winfey told the Detroit News that she received a notice from the U.S. Postal Service that they could not guarantee all absentee ballots would be received by the Aug. 4 deadline and encouraged voters to drop their ballot off at designated locations.

“Everyone’s mail is late, your bills are late,” Winfrey said. “If you have a ballot or are expecting a ballot, you need to drop it off at one of our vote centers, one of the two drop boxes. The postmaster has guaranteed any that are found after Aug. 4 will be brought to us.”

Whitmer was hopeful with all the effort exerted by election workers.

“I encourage Michiganders to cast their vote in the upcoming election, whether you drop your absentee ballot at your local clerk’s office or decide to vote safely in person on Tuesday,” Whitmer said in a statement Monday. “I applaud Secretary Benson and our local clerks for the tireless, round-the-clock work to ensure Michiganders can vote safely as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Voters who chose to venture out to the polls were strongly encouraged to wear masks but were not bound by law to do so. A few Detroit polling location openings were delayed and others were short-staffed due to last-minute cancellations among election workers, according to Benson’s office. In response they deployed several workers to the locations, allowing them to open by 9 a.m.

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