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In pivotal Michigan, residents brave long lines and windy cold to cast early ballots

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/3/2020 Kayla Ruble, Omar Sofradzija, Moriah Balingit
a group of people that are standing in the rain: People wait in line to cast their absentee ballots in person at a senior center in Sterling Heights, Mich. © Salwan Georges/The Washington Post People wait in line to cast their absentee ballots in person at a senior center in Sterling Heights, Mich.

DETROIT —On the eve of Election Day, Michigan voters swarmed to polling sites to cast their ballots, in many cases braving long lines and unforgiving weather to ensure their voices were heard in what some described as the most consequential election of their lifetimes.

The secretary of state’s office reported some 2.9 million absentee ballots had been cast — about 60 percent of the ballots cast in Michigan in 2016. Nationwide, at least 98 million people already have voted, about 70 percent of the total vote from four years ago.

In Michigan, voters who want to cast their ballots early must obtain absentee ballots — either by requesting them in advance and receiving them in the mail, or by picking them up from municipal clerks. It’s why several offices saw lines with two- or three-hour waits — even at satellite locations.

The state was anticipating a surge in absentee ballots this year for several reasons. Two years ago, voters backed a measure to make it easier to obtain an absentee ballot and to automatically register eligible Michiganders who had business with the secretary of state’s office, including to renew driver’s licenses or obtain vehicle tags. Now voters leery of crowding in at polling places because of the coronavirus pandemic may also be casting their ballots early.

[With caravans and outdoor rallies that some see as intimidation, Trump supporters step up public promotion]

But there was no doubt heightened interest in this election played a role. President Trump won the state in 2016 by a slim margin, a victory that helped carry him to the Oval Office. Since then, however, Democrats have made considerable gains. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) won by a landslide in 2018, the same year Democrats flipped two House seats. Trump, cognizant of the state’s importance, planned a late-night campaign event Monday at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport just outside of Grand Rapids.

There remained heightened anxiety after months of polarization and political turmoil that drew angry protesters, many of them armed, to demonstrations against pandemic restrictions put in place by Whitmer. The state is also in a fight over firearms at the polls. Last month, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson tried to ban guns at the polls, but the ban was challenged by gun-rights advocates and overturned. The Michigan Supreme Court has yet to decide the case.

Outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in downtown Detroit, about a dozen people braced against the morning wind as they waited to cast their ballots. Inside, the line wound up through the building, up to the second floor — a wait of one to two hours throughout the day.

A hospital worker, Mary, emerged from the building, and said it had taken her two hours to cast her ballot. She was scheduled to work a double shift Tuesday, and the only way she could vote was to call in sick Monday. She asked that her last name not be used because she feared she would be in trouble with her employer.

a group of people standing in front of a building: TORY, MI - NOVEMBER 2: People wait in line to casts their absentee ballots in person at Troy's clerk's office in Tory, Michigan on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) © Salwan Georges/The Washington Post TORY, MI - NOVEMBER 2: People wait in line to casts their absentee ballots in person at Troy's clerk's office in Tory, Michigan on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The risk, she said, was worth it “because I want Trump out office.”

The pandemic may shape the race in another way, particularly in East Lansing, which in normal times is home to the bustling campus of Michigan State University. In 2018, Elissa Slotkin flipped Michigan’s 8th Congressional District blue for the first time since 2001 by a slender margin of around 13,000 votes. Helping fuel her win were students at Michigan State University, whose roughly 50,000 students lean liberal in their voting patterns.

But remote learning this fall prompted by the pandemic is keeping registration levels in some college communities like East Lansing well below expected levels. There, City Clerk Jennifer Shuster estimated new registrations in campus precincts were down as much as 50 percent this fall, as thousands of students learn and vote from their permanent homes this semester.

Students were a “pretty significant factor in the race” in 2018, said Slotkin campaign spokesman Gordon Trowbridge, estimating half the winning margin may have come from the demographic. “She’s said on multiple occasions: She’s not just running against an opponent; she’s running against covid-19, and this is one of the ways that manifests itself.”

To deal with the crush of absentee ballots, lawmakers allowed large cities to process — but not count — absentee ballots for ten hours Monday. In contrast to raucous rallies, this part of the election occurred without much noise. In a massive convention hall in Grand Rapids, more than 50 election workers — spanning from college-aged to the gray-haired — worked quietly and diligently to open envelopes, verify ballot numbers and remove secrecy sleeves. Vote-counting machines lined one wall of the hall, sitting idle.

[The year of the vote: How Americans surmounted a pandemic and dizzying rule changes so their voices would be heard] a person sitting at a table: STERLING HEIGHTS, MI - NOVEMBER 2: Voters cast their absentee ballots at the Sterling Heights Election Center located in the Senior Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) © Salwan Georges/The Washington Post STERLING HEIGHTS, MI - NOVEMBER 2: Voters cast their absentee ballots at the Sterling Heights Election Center located in the Senior Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Monday evening, as Trump makes his way to the airport near Grand Rapids, workers will put ballots in containers. Early Tuesday, the counting begins, and the hall will be turned in to a sort of bunker: Anyone entering will have to surrender his or her phones and will be unable to leave until polls close.

City Clerk Joel Hundorp said the tabulation may draw “challengers,” people sent by political parties or civil rights groups to observe and challenge any ballot they felt was tabulated incorrectly. They, too, are subject to the lockdown.

“It’s like the Hotel California,” Hundorp said. “You can come at any time, but you have to stay.”

As the sun set in Detroit, young activists bundled against the cold in a park on the eastern side of the city — far from the glitzy venues where candidates had hosted campaign stops — as they wrapped up a day of canvassing. Nicole Denson, a 35-year-old organizer from Detroit, said this part of the city was easy to overlook.

“It’s so many people who have been left behind in this area, but it’s so much beauty also in this area,” said Denson, who runs her own consulting company. “It’s just a place on the east side. The east side of Detroit, people have forgotten about them, and we wanted to let them know their vote matters.”

a person standing in front of a brick building: TORY, MI - NOVEMBER 2: A voter casts their absentee ballot at Troy's clerk's office in Tory, Michigan on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) © Salwan Georges/The Washington Post TORY, MI - NOVEMBER 2: A voter casts their absentee ballot at Troy's clerk's office in Tory, Michigan on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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