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Michigan Dems hope absentee voting will give them an edge in November

Tuesday may be primary election day, but the truth is we’re already off to the races. The voting has begun. Absentee voting. Absentee ballots are the first ballots cast, but the last to be counted on Election Day. And more and more they can make the difference between winning and losing.

That’s because voting absentee is on the rise in Michigan -- nearly doubled over the past 10 years. More than one in four (27 percent, to be specific) of the ballots cast in 2012 were absentee. And that’s why the smart campaigns focus early on absentee voters. They keep track of who requests an absentee ballot, and then quickly steer campaign propaganda in that voter’s direction.

It is also why the Michigan Democratic Party -- with an eye toward November -- has been quietly carrying on an absentee voter experiment. Voters in Detroit and Lansing, can now apply for their absentee ballots online.

The idea is to make it as easy as possible for voters to get their ballots in early. That’s a critical issue for Democrats here in Michigan because they have an issue with mid-term elections, and this year’s mid-term in particular.

Democrats are less likely to vote in mid-terms than in presidential years, and Obama fatigue is only exacerbating that turnout challenge for the Ds. That’s despite the fact that there are more Democrats in Michigan than Republicans. It’s a blue state. Just with a red streak running through it. But if Democrats don’t turn out, it doesn’t matter how blue the state is. There were almost a million registered Democratic voters who did not vote in 2010. Obama voters, basically, who stayed home in 2010, turning that into a banner year for Republicans.

That helped propel Gov. Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette, Ruth Johnson and a raft of GOP candidates lower on the ballot into their current jobs. Yet, just two years later, President Barack Obama smacked down Mitt Romney here in Michigan.

That’s why Michigan Democrats are cranking up the motivation machine: 'Get up, you Obama voters! Get out! You can do it!!'

But every voter the Ds can get to vote absentee is a voter they won’t have to dislodge from the couch on Election Day. That’s the beauty for the Ds of voting absentee. Just apply online (if you live in Detroit or Lansing) and a ballot is sent to your house.

Now, Michigan does have some rules surrounding absentee voting. It’s not a “no-reason” absentee vote state. Anyone over 60 can vote absentee. Voters younger than that have to give a reason, like you’re going to be out of town, a religious holiday will keep you from the polls, or you’re in jail awaiting trial. Local clerks decide how strictly they want to enforce the rules.

Anyway, this online absentee ballot request, it’s a test run for the general election cycle, when the Ds plan to expand it -- with the assistance of helpful, sympathetic local clerk. It’s in Lansing and Detroit now. Add Ann Arbor and Flint for the general. All cities with strong Democratic leanings.

Democrats figure if they can get a third of those almost-a-million voters who didn’t vote four years ago to actually cast ballots this November, they can win some races that they wouldn’t otherwise. Now, a third might not seem a like a lot -- but that’s about 300,000 people. It’s a heavy lift.

Now Republicans don’t have the same issues -- they’re the ones winning these mid-term elections. But they also realize technology helps them get votes. The Michigan GOP is using a program this year they call “Dashboard.”  It gives Republican organizers and volunteers the ability to gather and save political information about their friends or neighbors and identify supporters.

Because to win elections, it doesn’t matter if people agree with you if they don’t vote.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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