High Turnout, Same-Day Registration Lead to Long Lines in East Lansing, MI

[Image via cityofeastlansing]

The city clerk in East Lansing, MI – home of Michigan State University – says long voting lines in this week’s presidential primary were the result of high turnout and hundreds of student voters who registered on Election Day. The Lansing State Journal has more:

The East Lansing City Clerk’s Office is defending Election Day operations after college students reported waiting as long as three or four hours to vote Tuesday in Michigan’s primary.

Hundreds of East Lansing voters took advantage of same-day voter registration Tuesday, with 714 people showing up to City Hall on Election Day to register to vote, according to the clerk’s office.

The last voter in East Lansing, home to Michigan State University, voted at 10:45 p.m., two hours and 45 minutes after polls closed across most of Michigan and nearly two hours after the Associated Press called Michigan’s Democratic primary in favor of former Vice President Joe Biden.

People who were in line to vote or to register to vote by the 8 p.m. deadline got to stay and complete the task. Tuesday’s primary was the first statewide race in Michigan since voters passed a series of election reforms, including same-day voter registration and allowing people to vote absentee without providing a specific reason for doing so.

Of those who registered Tuesday, 572 voters filled out their absentee ballots at East Lansing City Hall. Others opted to take their registration receipt to their designated polling locations and cast ballots there, assuming they arrived before the polls closed.

“Despite the long line at City Hall, voters — many voting for the very first time — received a positive experience and were vocally grateful,” East Lansing City Clerk Jennifer Shuster said in a statement. “The issue of long lines was not unique to the city of East Lansing, as other college towns such as Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids reported the same challenges on Election Day.”

There were 10 voting booths at East Lansing City Hall Tuesday…

About half of the same-day registrants came in after 4:30 p.m., creating a “very difficult situation” for local clerks, [the state] said.

Many of the voters at East Lansing City Hall on Tuesday were registering to vote for the first time. Others switched their voter registrations from their hometowns to East Lansing. Some students were already registered in East Lansing, but needed to update their addresses after moving dormitories or apartments.

With more than 39,000 undergraduates, MSU is the state’s largest university.

The city ended up calling in help to deal with the crush of voters at City Hall:

Shuster had initially deployed eight workers at City Hall and Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum later sent 14 more people as reinforcements.

About 2:30 p.m., Byrum provided East Lansing with printers and sent two county employees to help. Between 5:30 p..m. and 7 p.m., Byrum said she called on 12 friends and acquaintances to join.

Those people were deputized to serve as election workers, with authority to access voter registration lists.

“Local clerks, they’re just not properly supported with resources and staff and the time,” Byrum told the county’s Board of Canvassers on Wednesday.

East Lansing saw voter turnout at 41% of registered voters, with 10,829 people voting in the recent election. A substantial portion of those voters, 3,826 people or 35%, voted absentee.

The clerk says she will focus outreach efforts this fall on encouraging students to register in advance – and find more people to help at the polls, which will likely be necessary given the expected increase in Election Day tallying of absentee ballots:

“I was pleased with the student turnout on Election Day,” Shuster said in a statement. “I will continue to push for voter education on the option to register to vote online, to register prior to the two weeks before the election so the in-person requirement can be avoided and to vote absentee and have that ballot mailed to residences and even temporary addresses.”

Shuster encouraged more people to help by becoming paid election inspectors. She also said it would help if the legislature allowed clerks to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day.

The counting and processing of absentee ballots can keep workers from attending to other duties at the polls, Jake Rollow, a Michigan Secretary of State spokesman, said.

One key factor in Tuesday’s lines was the higher proportion of student voters registering on Election Day:

It appears East Lansing saw nearly three times as many same-day registrants as neighboring Lansing, which has more than twice East Lansing’s population.

Approximately 250 voters in the capital city registered on election day, Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said.

In Lansing, voters can register on Election Day at City Hall or at a satellite elections unit on South Washington Avenue. That’s not the case in East Lansing, where City Hall was the only location available for same-day voter registration.

In Lansing, 10,785 people voted absentee, which was roughly 42% of the vote, according to Swope.

In Ingham County, an estimated 1,116 people registered to vote on Election Day.

Across the county, 33,628 people cast absentee ballots, more than two and half times the number cast in the 2016 presidential primary, according to Byrum.

This story is yet another reminder of the power of the unexpected in election administration. Michigan clerks had spent much of the run-up to the primary warning about potential delays in counting due to the higher number of absentee ballots expected; however, it appears that high registration demand was the real factor contributing to long lines last Tuesday. It will be interesting to see if this phenomenon emerges again in November – and if so, how clerks in East Lansing and elsewhere will respond. Stay tuned …

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