Farmington Hills City Clerk Pam Smith leads an election poll worker training seminar Oct. 21, 2020.

Farmington Hills City Clerk Pam Smith leads an election poll worker training seminar Oct. 21, 2020.

Photo by Jonathan Shead

Another election, another record-setting turnout by voters

Election experts discuss why we’re seeing increases in voting

By: Jonathan Shead | C&G Newspapers | Published October 23, 2020


OAKLAND COUNTY — We saw it in the March election. We saw it again in August, and we will likely continue to see it during the upcoming Nov. 3 presidential election. Voters in 2020 are coming out in record-breaking droves to cast their ballots.

After breaking a record for the number of absentee ballots during the primary this past August, heading into the general election, West Bloomfield Township has already set a new one.

“We are beyond our record by a significant number already, with less than two weeks to go,” said West Bloomfield Township Clerk Debbie Binder. “The highest number of absentee ballots we’ve ever processed was in August, and that was 16,783. We have 30,000 ballots out right now and almost 20,000 back already.”

Binder said over 50% of the township’s registered voters have already requested absentee ballots.

She has been anticipating the aftermath of the election.

“We know just by sheer volume and turnout, and the fact that we have a two-page ballot for each ballot in West Bloomfield, we won’t be an early reporter,” Binder said. “Accuracy and precision are far more important than speed.”

Why, though, are voters coming out in such increasing numbers this year than they ever have before? Election experts in Oakland County believe two big factors are emotions and information access.

“Emotions are a big driver. I think people have strong feelings one way or the other about some of the candidates on the ballot, especially at the top,” Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said. “(The presidential election) has always been a higher turnout, but I think there’s a lot of divisiveness right now, and whichever way people feel, they feel strongly about it and feel they need to vote to make their voice heard.”

It’s hard not to see how easily tensions between each political party could be cut with a knife. Farmington Hills City Clerk Pam Smith thinks that trend of making disagreements into a political dog fight has only stoked the fire and made voters more motivated to get involved.

The other side of the coin comes from an increase in the information that’s accessible and visible to voters. Whether voters are scrolling through social media, turning on the TV or getting their mail, political advertisements and election information has skyrocketed.

“We have candidates spending more money in a national election than we’ve ever seen. There’s more ads on Instagram (and) Facebook, more visibility on Twitter. There are so many multimedia factors that are places of contact for a voter,” League of Women Voters Oakland Area Vice President of Community Engagement Geri Rinschler said. “I also personally think we are more polarized than we were even four years ago. The partisan parties have been spending more money to get as much visibility as possible.”

Rinschler has seen lawn signage and new organizations geared toward helping voters gain information about the election increase, too. She’s seeing voters from every age group engage more in the election process, and the League of Women Voters sent out a record-breaking 25,000 voter guides this year.

Pair all that with a global pandemic and the 2018-passed Proposal 18.3, which allows voters to request an absentee ballot without a reason, and it’s no wonder local clerks are seeing volumes they’ve never seen before.

Brown’s office, which will be helping 16 cities and townships across the county tabulate their ballots on Election Day, says already 146,277 ballots have been requested from those municipalities, as of Oct. 21, and 78,156 of those ballots have been returned. Across Oakland County’s 52 cities and townships, it saw 674,149 ballots cast from a total of 941,722 registered voters, a 71.6% total turnout, in 2016.

“It wouldn’t be a surprise if we set a new record for turnout in Oakland County,” she said.

In Farmington Hills, Smith’s office saw a 73.7% total voter turnout in 2016, and she expects that percentage to grow by about 10%, to 85%, for the upcoming presidential election. Already her office has issued over 34,000 absentee ballots and has seen about 22,000 of them returned, a stark difference from the 18,800 total absentee ballots returned to her office for the August primary election.

“Our hallway and counter are steady all day long. We’re still issuing anywhere from a hundred to a thousand (ballots) a day,” she said, adding that she’s increased her personnel to handle the volume her office is handling.

Will voter turnout stay this high four years from now, or even next year? The experts say a lot will factor into what they see moving forward.

Brown said the presence or absence of COVID-19 will continue to determine the outcomes, but she thinks there will always be a subset of voters going to the polls. Smith said total voter turnout for the next presidential election will likely depend on the candidates running and whether it’s as high profile as this one. Rinschler believes we’ll see a dip after the election before the numbers flatten and then increase again closer to the next election.

“I do think there’s more of everything that’s catching people’s attention. I’m hoping that the voters who are engaged, and the young folks who are registering to vote, will stay engaged no matter what happens. That’ll be interesting to see,” Rinschler said.

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