STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — Less than an hour’s drive from Ann Arbor, Macomb County has for years typified the trials and tribulations of the Rust Belt, a region comprised largely of white, blue-collar workers.
To political insiders and operatives, it is considered a hotbed of so-called Reagan Democrats — the traditionally Democratic voters from Midwestern, working-class areas who supported Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections in opposition to the economic troubles they faced under former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
Recent election cycles have shown the region can tilt either way. In 2004, President Bush edged out Democratic opponent John Kerry by less than two percent in Macomb but ultimately lost the state. Four years earlier, Bush lost the county by two percent to Democrat Al Gore.
In 2006, the county heavily supported Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. During that same election, though, the county was staunch in its support for Proposal 2, which banned affirmative action at public institutions across the state. Macomb voters favored, by a 2-to-1 margin, the ballot initiative, which most Democratic and minority interest groups opposed. The county’s vote raises the question of whether its voters will throw their support behind Barack Obama, the first black presidential nominee from a major party.
Volunteers at Obama’s field office in Sterling Heights said they have seen an unprecedented level of voter engagement and involvement this election. This election cycle, Macomb County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh said there have been about 600,000 to 700,000 registrations in Macomb, more than a 20 percent increase from the last presidential election. She said she expects “at least an 80 percent turnout” from voters on Election Day.
Volunteer Jim Keck, 61, said that this is the most energized election he’s seen in nearly 40 years.
“I haven’t assisted in a campaign like this since Eugene McCarthy in 1968,” Keck said. “For people my age, this is almost like the ’60s all over again, and a lot of it is the enthusiasm of young people.”
Keck, a resident of Forest Park, Ill., said he was asked by the Obama campaign to travel and volunteer at an office in a nearby state because Obama has a sizable lead in polls in his home state.
Since arriving at the Sterling Heights office, Keck said he’s been “very pleasantly inspired by the people here.”
“I think this office is like a microcosm of what’s going on across the country,” he said. “We have every conceivable constituency of this county here, both racially and age-wise.”
Sterling Heights resident Christine Powers, who has been volunteering at the office since the Democratic National Convention, said that as the election draws closer, she has seen more and more volunteers showing up at the office.
“It’s been really great, really great,” she said of the volunteer efforts. “Especially in the last few days, we’ve seen faces that we haven’t seen at all, coming in off the street.”
McCain volunteers in Macomb described similar experiences in telephone interviews last night, saying they’ve managed to find energized volunteers despite the Obama campaign’s financial advantage.
Warren resident Jessica Ciurla, who’s been working at the campaign for about a month, said that at McCain’s Macomb office, there have been a lot of volunteers, “especially young people who are very excited to help John McCain.”
Sterling Heights resident Roger Lonsway, 49, said it was “disappointing” when McCain pulled resources out of Michigan, but that didn’t stop the efforts of volunteers in the state.
“He may have de-emphasized his campaign (in Michigan),” Lonsway said. “But we continued, and we never left the state and we’ve been making phone calls ever since that announcement was made.”
Ciurla agreed that McCain’s exit from the state didn’t significantly hurt their efforts.
“We are more grassroots, so we just make phone calls to people,” she said.
Adding to the heightened level of voter engagement in the area was Thursday’s announcement from the Department of Justice that federal election monitors will be deployed to Macomb to watch for voter intimidation and other illegalities on Election Day.
According to a Department of Justice press release, Macomb is one of 59 jurisdictions in 23 states where federal workers will monitor the polls. The county is the lone Michigan location that will receive the scrutiny.
Sabaugh said in a phone interview Sunday that she “welcomes” the federal poll monitors because they ensure a more fair election. She said her office doesn’t want voters in the county to be challenged for “frivolous” reasons.
According to Thursday’s press release, “The observers and Department personnel will gather information on whether voters are subject to different voting qualifications or procedures on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”
Sabaugh’s office wasn’t involved in the department’s decision to send poll monitors to her county, she said.
The only explanation in the press release of how the jurisdictions were picked is that the Department of Justice may ask for federal personnel to be sent “to areas that have been certified for coverage by a federal court or the Attorney General. The Department also may send monitors from its own staff to elections in other jurisdictions.”
The department would not answer questions regarding why Macomb was chosen.
Sabaugh said the reason could be because of recent comments made by James Carabelli, chairman of the Macomb County Republican Party.
In an article published by the Michigan Messenger in September, Carabelli was quoted as saying, “We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses.”
Those comments have sparked outrage from those who argue that a foreclosure notice is not a sufficient basis for challenging a person’s residency and eligibility to vote.
Carabelli, who said he couldn’t comment on the matter because of his pending lawsuit against the Michigan Messenger, told the Flint Journal, “The story is not true. The Michigan Messenger made it up.”
Sabaugh, who said she believes using foreclosure lists to challenge voters is “really wrong,” said the fallout from Carabelli’s comments is why the federal monitors will be in Macomb.
Volunteers from both campaigns said their main focus now was to make sure people vote on Election Day.
Lonsway, a McCain volunteer, said that while it may be difficult to change peoples’ minds at this point, if his fellow volunteers can get Republicans out to the polls, they could have a big impact on the race.
“If our turnout is high, then we certainly will deliver Macomb County for McCain and hopefully have some influence on the rest of the state,” he said.
Keck, an Obama volunteer, said Obama has strong campaign support in Macomb, but whether or not people will vote is still unknown.
“If everyone that says they’re for Barack actually votes for him, he’s going to be the next president,” he said.