Local voter turnout slightly increases, holds steady from 2018

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published August 14, 2020

 Almost 61% of Huntington Woods voters turned in a ballot in the Aug. 4 primary.

Almost 61% of Huntington Woods voters turned in a ballot in the Aug. 4 primary.

Photo by Mike Koury


OAKLAND COUNTY —  The August primary has never been the election night to get much attention, but over the past four years voter turnout has steadily increased in Oakland County.

In 2016, Oakland County saw a turnout of 19.96% for its August primary. Specifically in the cities of Ferndale, Berkley, Huntington Woods and Pleasant Ridge, the turnout was 23.54%, 19.93%, 32.51% and 37.96%, respectively.

“Actually, that used to be high,” Ferndale City Clerk Marne McGrath said of the turnout numbers from four years ago. “Usually, if you broke 20% in an August primary, it was a good day.”

Since then, the political climate has gotten more attention and in 2018 the turnout made a big leap to 34.37%. All cities covered by the Woodward Talk also saw increases in their turnout, with Ferndale at 42.3%, Berkley at 40.2%, Huntington Woods at 54.99% and Pleasant Ridge at 52.72%.

The August primary for 2020 now has come and gone, and Oakland County saw a bump in its overall turnout with 37.14%

The city of Ferndale’s turnout did have a slight increase from 2018 at 42.59%. Overall, 6,994 out of the city’s 16,420 registered voters turned in a ballot to one of the city’s nine precincts 

Berkley’s turnout saw an even smaller bump from 2018. From its seven precincts, the voter turnout was 40.27%. Out of 13,127 registered voters, 5,286 returned a ballot.

Pleasant Ridge, from its one precinct, had a 53.45% turnout, close to a 1% bump from two years prior.

Huntington Woods had the highest turnout increase from 2018, wherein 60.8% of voters sent in their ballots. With 5,622 registered voters in its five precincts, 3,418 voted Aug. 4.

The increase in 2018 and the steady hold on the turnout numbers in 2020 is not surprising for local city clerks, who are tasked with handling elections.

“I wasn’t surprised by the numbers,” McGrath said. “I was assuming it would be comparable to 2018. I knew it would be higher than 2016.”

What was surprising to McGrath this year was the number of absentee ballots her office received on Election Day. In the era of COVID-19, much emphasis has been placed on absentee ballots in order to keep polling precincts from getting crowded and to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We received back 5,150 (ballots), which we’ve never had that absentee turnout,” she said. “A lot of that was prompted by, obviously, the COVID pandemic, but also the Secretary of State’s Office sending out absentee ballot applications to every registered voter back in June. I think that made a lot of people realize that they could vote that way if they chose to, and I think that made a big difference.”

The big difference in Huntington Woods from 2018 to 2020, City Clerk Heidi Barckholtz said, was that their absentee and in-person voters swapped, as their precincts saw fewer people with more people opting to vote from home. She also cited COVID-19 and the ease of voting as reasons for the city’s increase in voters.

“Everybody was sending applications,” she said. “You really didn’t have a reason not to vote, and I think in the political climate we’re in, people are just more aware and they want to see their vote count.”

Barckholtz estimated that the city’s precincts averaged about 100 voters at each one.

“Even on a slow election, we’ll do 250-350 in person, but there was never a line,” she said. “It was slow and steady, but it was definitely a much smaller turnout in person, but we have 5,500 voters and we did 3,100 ballots absentee.”

McGrath concurred, saying the election dynamic now has flipped and it has given them a lot of “food for thought” on how to adjust to this change.

“The numbers were flipped as we would expect that kind of turnout in the precincts, but not in (absentee voters),” she said. “The amount of (absentee voter) ballots we sent out was what we would normally expect to have people coming in in-person. A lot of that’s driven by COVID and just the ease of absentee voting. I think it’s gonna be really interesting to see how that plays out for November.”