TRAVERSE CITY — Just call Michigan absentee voting in 2020 the second coming of Disco Demolition Night, because both were blowing up records.
Unlike the famed July 1979 event at Comiskey Park in Chicago, however, the record-breaking number of mail-in voters for both the August Primary and the November Presidential Election did not result in a mass riot — nor was it the product of 10-cent beer night.
North of 1.6 million people voted absentee in August, and that number more than doubled in November when a record-setting 3.3 million mailed in their ballots. Those numbers likely were influenced by health concerns because of the COVID-19 pandemic and legislation to allow no-reason absentee voting.
County clerks for Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska and Leelanau all reported record numbers of absentee ballot requests and returns.
Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele said the rise was expected.
“It wasn’t a surprise that we were going to have a lot more absentee voting. We prepared for that. We knew it was coming,” Scheele said. “Now, I think, we know to have extra people, extra staff on hand to help out and train even more workers to have them processing and counting those ballots faster and smoother.”
The heavy volume of absentee ballots led to slowed results from precincts and counties in Michigan.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said on Election Day that final statewide results would require patience.
“We are going to count every single vote in the State of Michigan no matter how long it takes, no matter what candidates say — we are going to work methodically and meticulously to count every single valid ballot,” she said.
More than half of the 38,085 absentee votes in Grand Traverse had yet to be counted as Election Day stretched past midnight and into Nov. 4.
Scheele said, at the time, that most of those ballots were in East Bay and Garfield townships and the City of Traverse City. Scheele said processing all of those ballots required manual labor that could only be done once polls opened on Election Day.
“The numbers were floating like water. They kept changing,” Scheele said.
Scheele gave much of the credit for getting through all of the ballots to her local precinct clerks.
“They’re the ones actually issuing and receiving back the actual ballots,” she said. “They had a huge responsibility and a lot of extra work.”
Nearly 7,000 Traverse City voters sent in absentee ballots, an approximate 250 percent increase over 2016.
“It’s a massive amount of absentee ballots compared to the amount that we’ve ever received before,” City Clerk Benjamin Marentette said.
A team of 20 elections workers counted them, and a new machine that processed about 100 ballots every 90 seconds was a great help, Marentette said.
Without it, Marentette said all the votes would not have been counted until much later. Elections workers still needed to look at ballots with write-in candidates or too many selections for races with multiple seats to fill.
Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy reported record highs in registered voters, absentee ballots mailed and absentee ballots returned for the Nov. 3 election. Benzie also set records down the line.
In Leelanau, County Clerk Michelle Crocker said they had a 90 percent return of the 11,198 absentee ballots issued to more than half of the 21,381 registered voters in the county — all record numbers.
Kalkaska County Clerk Deborah Hill reported a smaller percentage of absentee ballots than the other four counties (4,287 or about 27 percent of the registered voter population), but the return was still record-setting.
The trend was clear in August, too, when absentee voting eclipsed entire turnouts for primaries in previous elections.
Nearly 6,000 more Grand Traverse County residents cast absentee ballots in the 2020 Primary election than voted both in person and by mail combined in the last presidential election year August primary.
Scheele reported that 24,786 absentee ballots were issued for the Aug. 4 election with an 80.92 percent return rate, or 22,109 ballots. In 2016, 16,748 voters — 9,021 voted in person and 7,727 by mail — cast ballots.
Unlike Disco Demolition Night, absentee voting won’t be a one-and-done trend.
“Absolutely it’s going to increase,” Scheele said. “Absolutely.”