Column: A Pitch for Absentee Voting

A solid base hit for democracy

Primary elections in Michigan fall on Tuesday, Aug. 3 this year. That’s also the day the Detroit Tigers start a three-game series with the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. Here’s a suggestion for Ann Arbor city voters: Don’t plan to go the polls. Instead, plan to take the whole day off and go to the ball game. You can still vote, vote, vote for your home team – you’ll just need do it with an absentee ballot.

Absentee voter applications are not printed on baseballs. This is just someone's execution of the concept that "Every article should have art!"

Now, you don’t have to go to the game in order to qualify for an absentee ballot. But just to be clear, if you do plan to make a whole day event out of your visit to Detroit to watch the game, that will absolutely qualify you for an absentee ballot. If you expect to be out of town, that’s a legally valid reason for voting absentee.

Maybe some of you would even like to make the short drive in to the ballpark after a Monday night stay at the Westin Book Cadillac – from what I understand, it’s a pleasant place to spend the night, even if you’re not a Washtenaw Communty College trustee.

What about you Chronicle readers who aren’t baseball fans? If you want to vote absentee, the current election law specifies a limited set of other reasons you can use, which include being older than 60, being in jail, or having religious beliefs that prevent attending the polls.

The topic came up a bit more than a week ago, when the Ann Arbor city Democrats hosted a forum for candidates contesting the Democratic primaries for Michigan’s 52nd and 53rd district state House seats. Jeff Irwin, who along with Ned Staebler is running for the 53rd District seat, threw out an idea for a tweak in Michigan’s election laws.

Irwin said he’d like to see “on-demand absentee” voting – citizens would be able to obtain an absentee ballot and avoid the lines at the polls for any or no reason at all. It’s not some new screwball idea – it’s been around a while and enjoys a lot of support, from Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum, among others.

For the time being, though, the application for an absentee ballot requires that voters commit, you know, really commit – just like the guy on the mound has to commit to delivering the ball to the plate after starting in that direction – to at least one of the allowable reasons under the state statute. Through June 17, according to the first Absent Voter report sent out last week via email by the city clerk, over 1,800 Ann Arborites have already committed to one of those reasons.

The Absent Voter Report

Last week, the Ann Arbor city clerk’s office sent out an email containing its first Absent Voter report – absentee ballot applications requested through June 17. The first one, as well as subsequent reports, contains an updated list of names and addresses of all voters who have applied for an absentee ballot. That first email indicated that the city has taken delivery of its ballots, so starting this week, the absentee ballots will be mailed out to those who’ve requested them.

How do you sign up for the city clerk’s email alert service? It’s as simple as telling the city clerk you’d like to be added to the “daily AV list.”

Who would want to receive timely updates about people who’ve applied for absentee ballots as those requests roll in? Candidates on those ballots have a clear interest in knowing who has requested ballots and whether the ballots have been returned – both pieces of information are provided in the daily AV list.

As The Chronicle noted back in May, as a part of its coverage of the finalized primary field, someone who’s requested an absentee ballot is highly likely to vote, so from that point of view, candidates typically see them as a good time investment. It’s worth an extra knock on their door or an extra postcard in the mail. Similarly, if the person has already voted by absentee ballot, well, contacting them is not going to change their vote – a candidate’s time might be better invested knocking on new doors.

How Many People Vote Absentee?

Absentee ballot applications are accepted starting 75 days before the election. Calculating backwards from Aug. 3 puts the start of application acceptance on May 21. In the first daily AV list sent last week, 1,860 voters were listed. Broken down by ward, here’s what that picture looks like – the percentages indicate the percent of total ballots requested so far:

Absentee ballot requests
through June 17, 2010
for Aug. 3 primary

214 Ward 1  11.5%
569 Ward 2  30.6%
319 Ward 3  17.2%
475 Ward 4  25.5%
283 Ward 5  15.2%

Total: 1,860


That percentage distribution of absentee ballots roughly parallels the November 2009 general election absentee voting percentages. Separate absentee ballot count boards – one for each ward – made a breakdown of absentee votes visible in the election results [Ward 1, Ward 2, Ward 3, Ward 4, Ward 5]:

Absentee Voting
by Ward in Ann Arbor
November 2009

236 Ward 1   9.9%
678 Ward 2  28.4%
390 Ward 3  16.3%
551 Ward 4  23.1%
533 Ward 5  22.3%

Total 2,388


Ward 5 accounted for a greater relative percentage of the total absentee vote in the November 2009 general election than it does in the early requests for ballots for the Aug. 3, 2010 primary, but it’s still relatively early in the ballot request season – the daily AV report for Monday, June 21 added another 49 names and addresses.

How Many Is a Lot of Absent Voters?

Based on the general election of November 2009 and the early absentee ballot application numbers, it looks like the absentee voter numbers for the Aug. 3 primary will, on the very conservative side, be at least 2,000. Is that a lot?

Viewed through the lens of the last two Democratic mayoral primaries, 2,000 votes works out to be roughly the difference between a clear victory and a virtual dead heat.

In 2008, when Tom Wall challenged John Hieftje for mayor, Wall received 3,394 votes to Hieftje’s 7,447. Shift 2,000 votes to Wall and Wall would have still been short – 5,394 to 5,447 – but not by much.

Two years earlier in 2006, when Wendy Woods challenged Hieftje, she received 2,913 votes to Hieftje’s 6,703.  Shift 2,000 votes to Woods and Woods would have prevailed 4,913 to 4,703.

So it’s fair to say 2,000 votes is a lot of votes. It’s easy to understand why candidates for public office in Ann Arbor “work the absentees,” using the daily AV lists – they’re not just almost certain to vote, their numbers are great enough to have a potential impact on the election.

The Penalty of Law

The kind of on-demand absentee voting advocated by Jeff Irwin at the city Democratic Party candidate forum does not currently exist. Absent voter ballots require “application” because Michigan does not currently allow for absentee voting for no reason. An exhaustive list of justifiable reasons that can be checked on the absentee ballot application is:

  • age 60 years old or older
  • unable to vote without assistance at the polls
  • expecting to be out of town on election day
  • in jail awaiting arraignment or trial
  • unable to attend the polls due to religious reasons
  • appointed to work as an election inspector in a precinct outside of your precinct of residence.

The application notes that “A person making a false statement in this absent voter ballot application is guilty of a misdemeanor.” And a call to the state’s Bureau of elections confirmed that the check on the accuracy of statements – including the reason cited justifying the right to vote absentee – is the application itself. In signing the form, an applicant for a ballot is attesting: “I declare that the statements in this absent voter ballot application are true.”

Irwin isn’t alone in advocating for reform that would eliminate the need to commit to a reason for voting absentee. Archived on Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum’s blog, Polygon, the Dancing Bear, is part of a Nov. 12, 2006 Ann Arbor News Q&A conducted by reporter Dave Gershman:

Q: What’s the trend you’re seeing in terms of absentee ballots?

A: Absentee ballots are being used more widely over time and you can see the percentage creeping up little by little, year by year. That may also have to do with the aging population as well. If you’re 60 years of age or older you’re automatically eligible to use an absentee ballot without having to state another reason.

And people certainly are aware of the fact that if you choose to vote absentee you can put down that, yes, you plan to be out of the jurisdiction on Election Day even if those plans later change. There has been a movement in the Legislature to enact basically freedom to use an absentee ballot instead of showing up in person without having to state a reason. That legislation, although supported by virtually all of the county and municipal clerks in the state and supported by the secretary of state, did not move forward in the Legislature in the last couple of years. It may in the next one.

Q: And you support that?

A: Oh, absolutely. … If people want to vote absentee they should be able to vote absentee, and the notion of swearing to a reason is really pretty superfluous.

That Q&A was published four years ago. But in response to a recent emailed query, Kestenbaum says: “All those things are still perfectly valid as far as I’m concerned.”

I think the case for on-demand voting is pretty straightforward: it would remove various barriers to participating in democracy. On-demand absentee voting would eliminate the need to make your vote on a specific day, the need to stand in a possibly long line, the need to brave possibly inclement weather, the need to arrange transportation to a polling place, among other barriers.

I don’t think on-demand absentee voting would be a grand-slam home run for democracy. I don’t think that such voting by itself would increase participation in the Ann Arbor August primaries a whole lot, beyond the roughly 14% of registered voters who decided the 2008 mayoral primary.

But improving our democratic process is not about hitting home runs – it’s about getting base hits. And on-demand absentee voting is like a solid base hit, straight up the middle.

For now, you need a reason for voting absentee. Planning an out-of-town excursion on election day – to a Tigers game – just so you can vote absentee might seem a little elaborate. But at least it means you’re planning to vote.

Absentee ballots can be requested by mail until the Saturday before the election. This year that’s July 31. The absentee ballot application form is available on the city clerk’s part of the city of Ann Arbor website. It can be sent via the full range of modern communication technologies: mailed; hand delivered to the city clerk’s office at 100 N. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48104; faxed  to 734-994-8296; or scanned and emailed to

Go Tigs.

About the writer: Dave Askins is editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. By cosmonıcan
    June 22, 2010 at 10:48 am | permalink

    Oddly, I have been “out of town” on election days for quite a few years. What a strange coincidence that my travels should happen then.

  2. By Leah Gunn
    June 22, 2010 at 11:15 am | permalink

    We ought to have all mail-in voting as Oregon does. Then no one has to go to the polls, and we don’t have to spend thousands of dollars staffing them.

  3. By Judith Foy
    June 22, 2010 at 2:24 pm | permalink

    THIS is a fantastic column, Dave!

  4. By abc
    June 22, 2010 at 3:59 pm | permalink

    I like voting in public. I like seeing others vote in public. It is satisfying to watch my ballot disappear knowing that it will be counted with all the others.

    That said, if absentee ballots would increase the number of people who vote then I am all for it. Decisions are made by those who show up; I wish more people showed up.

  5. June 23, 2010 at 11:14 am | permalink

    Dave, how does the number of absentee ballot applications this year compare with the number of ballot applications at exactly the same point in 2008 (mid-June)? I’m sure Jackie can give you the figure.

    This is the figure that would tell us whether or not the interest in the August primaries is higher this year than 2008, lower, or about the same.

  6. By Susan
    June 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm | permalink

    Like ABC, I like voting in public, and, in fact, believe it’s one of the few things that connects us as physical communities any more. I have neighbors I ONLY see on election days.

    That said, no excuse absentee ballots seem a lot better idea than mail in voting. Sometimes legitimate issues emerge in the closing days of a campaign that might seriously influence your vote if you hadn’t already cast it.

  7. June 24, 2010 at 12:04 pm | permalink

    Voting at the polls in an “open” primary provides “second-chance” voting for those who do not realize that a “split ticket” invalidates their votes. Absentee voters who vote for individuals in both parties do not get a second chance and their votes are not counted. If a voter makes the same mistake at the polls, the ballot is rejected and the voter gets a second chance to have a valid vote counted. Likely, an informed voter would not make that mistake, but with more voters there might be some whose inexperience might make for disappointing results. We ought to try anyway, to increase voter participation. Our elections need some voting vitamins.