Washtenaw County sees highest surge in voter turnout in all of Michigan

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 6:12pm

Last month’s Michigan state primary election saw a higher voter turnout rate than any primary election since 1978. The nearly 30 percent statewide voter turnout was up 6.7 percentage points since 2010, indicating Michiganders are more engaged with the midterm elections than in recent years.

This jump in voter turnout was not isolated to Michigan but swept across the country this summer. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of registered voters report being more enthusiastic than usual about voting. As of late July, overall turnout in U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and state gubernatorial races outpaced 2014 levels.

For House primaries, both Republican and Democrat turnout has increased, though Democrat turnout has risen more significantly. As of late July, the number of votes cast in Democratic House primaries is 84 percent higher than at the same point in 2014. Turnout for the Republican House primaries rose too by 24 percent.

Michigan also witnessed this partisan trend. Across the state, the turnout rate spiked the most in counties former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election. In Washtenaw County, where 68 percent of the 2016 vote went to Clinton, voter turnout is up 12.8 percentage points since 2010.

Michael Traugott, research professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, said the higher turnout among Democrats can be partly attributed to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and a response to the current administration.

“There’s a lot of angst still among the Democrats about the outcome of the 2016 election,” Traugott said. “And then concern I think about the behavior of President Trump, so in anticipation of the general election in the fall, Democrats are motivated to select good candidates, which is what happens in the primary.”

As for the Republican side, higher national turnout may be a result of competing forces within the party.

“In both parties, actually, there are some issues about some of the new party candidates and old party candidate,” Traugott said. “On the Republican side, there’s a contest between a particular kind of reform Trump candidate, and more traditional Republicans.”

The high primary voter turnout provides promise for large voter turn out in this November’s midtermelection. Erin Byrnes heads the Big Ten Voting Challenge on campus, an initiative among the fourteen Big Ten Conference schools to increase student turnout through competition. Byrnes finds the voter turnout rates in August encouraging and believes they are harbingers of high turnout rates in November.

Voters across our state are energized, paying attention and voting,” Byrnes said. “Primaries are often seen as forgotten elections, with voters more focused on the general in November. That was not the case this year, and we can likely look forward to a great increase in turnout this fall.”

Madison McKenzie, graduate assistant at the U-M Ginsberg Center, agrees more students across the country are becoming politically engaged and motivated to vote.

“I think we hit really a lull, or actually a peak in terms of apathy across the country especially among young people,” Mckenzie said. “There’s been effort in the last few years to really educate students on what is happening around and them and how their vote actually impacts what their lives are.”

According to Byrnes, the University had a 14 percent voter turnout rate in 2014. Traugott says this follows a national youth voting pattern.

“In general, there’s a kind of inverted J distribution between age and turnout,” Traugott said. “So turnout is low among young people, it grows, and then as people get older and maybe get a little infirmed their turnout rate declines.”

Traugott explains these low student turnout rates could be because voting is an acquired behavior; it takes practice, and young people haven’t gone through enough iterations to have the routine down yet.

Students from out of state may not be aware of the process for requesting an absentee ballot and miss deadlines as a result. Alternatively, out-of-state students may be detached from their own local politics.

Traugott says another reason for low student turnout rate could be lack of progressive state voting laws. Unlike other places, Michigan has no early voting sites nor no-excuse absentee ballots, and state identification is required to vote.

This month the University’s chapter of College Democrats, along with the Michigan State University chapter and the Michigan Federation of College Democrats, announced they were suing the state over two of its voter registration laws. 

One of the main goals of the Big Ten Voting Challenge is to energize the youth vote and make midterm election turnout comparable to the presidential election turnout.

“The Big Ten Voting Challenge aims to increase (the 14 percent turnout rate in 2014) by at least 200 percent, which would place us in the realm of typical college student turnout in a presidential election year, which hovers in the low to high forties,” Byrnes said. 

The Big Ten Voting Challenge has been able to register 12,000 students to vote since 2016 using TurboVote, an online resource that provides voting information and sends the user election reminders. The Big Ten Voting Challenge aims to continue to help students register to vote in Michigan as well as their home states.

As election day approaches, the Big Ten Voting Challenge will be vamping up their marketing and outreach efforts. Byrnes said some get-out-the-vote strategies will include signage across campus and an initiative called “Buses to Ballots”, which will provide transportation to the polls for students on election day.