Presidential election could set records for turnout and trigger debate over national election rules

LANSING (www.freep.com) – Well over 5 million Michigan residents and 150 million Americans — close to two-thirds of those eligible — are likely to vote in Tuesday’s election, experts say, setting overall turnout records for a vote that has already shattered marks for ballots cast in advance of Election Day.

And if the counting of massive numbers of absentee ballots in battleground states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, significantly delays officials from declaring a winner, the ensuing controversy could prompt a renewed debate over national election standards.

The huge early vote, with nearly 100 million ballots cast ahead of Election Day, has shone a light on huge differences among states in terms of when absentee ballots can arrive at polling places and when clerks can start counting them. In some states, such as Florida, officials have been processing the mountain of early ballots for weeks. In other states, including Michigan, clerks cannot start counting them until polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday. 

The Free Press talked with six national elections experts about the surge in early voting, what to expect in terms of overall 2020 turnout, and what it could mean for elections going forward.

Most noted a trend of increasing participation in recent elections — including record turnout for the 2018 midterms and a record number of votes cast for president in 2016 — and said a variety of circumstances have converged to likely produce new records for 2020.

The U.S. could break the record turnout of 139 million voters, set in 2016, as well as the turnout percentage of just under 62% recorded in 2008, the year former President Barack Obama was elected. It could also surpass the modern record high turnout of 63.8% in the 1960 presidential election, though that is not an apples-to-apples comparison because it was before the voting age was lowered to 18, from 21, around 1970.

Michigan is expected to surpass the record turnout of just over 5 million voters in 2008, when 67% of registered voters cast ballots.

The polarizing influence of President Donald Trump, which has highly energized voters in both the Republican and Democratic parties, is one factor. Another big factor, some experts say, is a pandemic that is driving home to voters how government affects their lives and why their votes matter.

Whether it is grief over the loss of a loved one or anger over having to wear a face mask, “you’re seeing tangible things that I think remind citizens that what government does matters,” said Jan Leighley, a political science professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “It frames politics in a very different way.”

In Michigan, a fiercely fought battleground that has drawn visits from Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, both their running mates, and former President Barack Obama in recent days, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has warned it could be Friday before final vote totals are known, though most local clerks say they expect to complete their tallies long before that.

The stated reason for the possible delay is the 2.9 million absentee ballots cast as of Monday morning — far exceeding the previous record of 1.6 million, set in the August primary — and the extra time it takes to count those ballots because of the way they are configured, to ensure both integrity and secrecy.

Though officials have been counting absentee ballots in Florida since late September and in Arizona and Nevada since around Oct. 20, Michigan officials must wait until the morning of Election Day. A law enacted this year allows clerks in dozens of Michigan cities to remove the ballots from their outer envelopes and partially prepare them for processing one day earlier. Most clerks say it is a welcome change but does not go far enough.

Though officials have been counting absentee ballots in Florida since late September and in Arizona and Nevada since around Oct. 20, Michigan officials must wait until the morning of Election Day. A law enacted this year allows clerks in dozens of Michigan cities to remove the ballots from their outer envelopes and partially prepare them for processing one day earlier. Most clerks say it is a welcome change but does not go far enough.

The federal government has stepped in before, notably through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed racially discriminatory voting practices, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which upgraded voting equipment and administration and set new requirements such as provisional voting for those who do not meet identification requirements.

Burden said the U.S. did not even have a uniform Election Day until the late 1800s, when the federal government established one.

“There has been a long march toward increasing uniformity and conformity,” he said.

Still, Republicans generally support leaving elections to the states.

It took the Florida election debacle of 2000, in which “hanging chads” and a range of other problems were laid bare while the outcome of the Florida vote and the presidential election was left in doubt, to produce the Help America Vote Act, Burden said.

Making the handling of absentee ballots more uniform is probably unlikely “unless there’s a real meltdown this year where some state is in the crosshairs and plays the role of Florida,” he said, without mentioning Michigan by name.

As for turnout. Rachael Cobb, chair of the political science and legal studies department at Suffolk University in Boston, said she expects extremely high turnout and would not be surprised if projections of 154 million voters — or about 64% of those eligible to vote — come true.

“I think there are several things driving it,” including high turnout among youth voters, which she attributes in part to a youth movement aimed at initiating gun control measures that began after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.

A recent analysis by Tufts University found that in Michigan, 9.4% of all early votes have been cast by youths this year, as compared with only 2.5% in 2016.

Like Leighley, Cobb cites the Trump factor for some of the increase in overall voter turnoutand the impact of the pandemic in demonstrating the influence of government on daily lives.

She noted the 2018 midterms also set a turnout record.

Trump “mobilized a lot of people to get engaged that had previously not been engaged,” and those were member of both parties, she said.

Though Trump will not be on the ballot in 2024 and the pandemic is expected to be gone, Cobb said she does not expect voter turnout levels to return to more normal levels after 2020.

One reason is the youth vote, she said.

“One of the things that we know about voting is if you do it once, you’re probably going to do it again. For young people, once they’ve tested it, they are going to stay with it.”

Kropf said it likely takes two or three elections to establish a voting habit.

But she said that while studies show early voting and any-reason absentee voting in many cases only change when voters cast their ballots, not whether they do, adopting same-day registration actually boosts voter turnout.

Michigan adopted same-day registration along with a citizen redistricting commission and other election changes in a 2018 referendum, joining what are now 20 other states, plus the District of Columbia.

Kimball said there appears to be a relationship, though it may not be a direct one, between political polarization and increased voter turnout.

“No matter who wins … the country is still going to be polarized,” he said. “It’s taken quite a bit of time for this polarization to gain steam and it’s not going to go away any time soon. So I think generally that does point to higher turnout in elections at least in the near future.”

John Fortier, director of governmental studies for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., said he expects the trend toward more early voting, which has been accelerated by the pandemic, will also continue, though perhaps not immediately at 2020 levels.

People who try vote-by-mail for the first time as a result of the pandemic may find that they want to continue, he said.

The trend to early voting is changing the nature of political campaigns, and those changes will be accelerated, Fortier said.

The changes are expensive because messaging must start much earlier and it was much easier “when you are pointing at one day,”  he said.

EUP News Staff
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