TRAVERSE CITY — Absentee ballot applications in Traverse City haven’t just blown remote voting numbers out of the water. They have eclipsed entire turnouts for August primaries in previous presidential election years.
The city sent 4,412 absentee ballots as of Friday and 2,474 of those ballots had been returned — a little over 56 percent, City Clerk Benjamin Marentette said. That’s out of around 12,500 registered voters.
Compare that to a total turnout of 3,429 for the 2016 August primary, in-person and otherwise, Marentette said. The city sent out 1,545 absentee ballots that year.
That election was prior to Michigan voters overwhelmingly approving no-reason absentee voting in 2018.
Marentette believes this year’s record absentee ballot numbers got a boost from Michigan Secretary of State’s move to send an absentee ballot to every registered voter. His office was already planning to do the same.
“The Secretary of State partnered with us, so we sort of divvied up the list,” he said.
Michigan Secretary of State officials reported that nearly 2 million registered voters have requested to vote by mail for the Aug. 4 primary. Just over a million people cast ballots by mail in the 2016 general election.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is urging people with an absentee ballot to return it to their local clerk’s office or drop box instead of using the mail to ensure it’s counted Aug. 4.
It’s likely that COVID-19 concerns also have more people voting away from the booth. Marentette said in-person voting will still be an option Tuesday, and the city will take precautions to keep people safe.
“But I’ve been encouraging people all over the state for folks to vote absentee for this election just purely for coronavirus-related reasons,” he said.
Traverse City has enough election workers to handle the surge of absentee votes, Marentette said, although some delays like tabulators jamming are possible regardless of turnout.
Marentette is part of the Michigan Vote Safe Coalition, a bipartisan group of health care professionals and election officials working on safety measures for polling places and to encourage absentee voting.
Marentette said all ballots must be in poll workers’ hands by 8 p.m. Aug. 4, so Traverse City absentee voters can leave their ballots in the city’s drop box outside of the Governmental Center before then.
“I always urge people to follow the most certain path, and that is dropping them off,” he said.
Grand Traverse County, as a whole, saw a major uptick in absentee ballots as well, County Clerk Bonnie Scheele said.
As of Friday, Scheele said 24,658 ballots were issued. Of those, 14,183 have been returned and logged in. That is more than double the ballots sent out in the 2016 (9,484) and 2018 (10,605).
Scheele also attributes the rise to the no-reason absentee rule and the pandemic.
“It’s easier. If we didn’t have a pandemic, would we have as many? Maybe,” she said. “People like the convenience of voting, not feeling rushed, not waiting in line.”
Not a single vote will be counted until Tuesday, but Scheele said they have “beefed up” the teams to get through the ballots. Absentee ballots are counted in a separate precinct, Scheele said, and there will be 17 of those precincts operational Tuesday.
Workers will start opening and processing them first thing in the morning, Scheele said.
Scheele said voters — those who have and who have not — can go to www.Michigan.gov/vote to look at their voting record, if their ballot was sent, returned and logged in. People can also see if they are registered to vote and in what precinct they should vote.
East Bay Township, as of Thursday afternoon, sent out 3,372 absentee ballots and received 1,933 of those back, Township Clerk Susanne Courtade said.
That’s a 57.3 percent return rate, though Courtade said she expects that to rise.
“Absentee voter return rate in the township is often close to 90 percent, and I expect that again,” she said. “We’re doing all we can to ensure everyone who wants to vote, can vote.”
Kalkaska County Clerk Deborah Hill said all township clerks have reported that requests for absentee ballots are up over prior elections.
“I think this election will be unprecedented,” she said, adding it may give election officials a better idea for how November may play out.
Adding the COVID-19 pandemic into the mix amid the new election laws this year, she’s not sure what turnout will be like — but it’s “just best we prepare for high turnout, as well as last-minute registrations.”
Hill’s office has received many calls because of the statewide mailing of absentee voter applications, which she said created a lot of confusion and discontent with voters.
“It has given many the appearance that the polls will not be open,” Hill said.
In-person voting runs from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday.
Record-Eagle reporters Sheri McWhirter, Mardi Link and Brendan Quealy contributed to this report.