Election Day 2020: What voting looked like in West Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — West Michigan showed up in droves Tuesday to vote in a contentious presidential election, with some sites seeing dozens of people in line to cast their ballots as polls opened.

Grand Rapids City Clerk Joel Hondorp says the city saw 66% turnout, a figure last seen in November 2008 when President Barack Obama was first elected. In November 2016, turnout in Grand Rapids was about 63%.

Polling sites started seeing voters right away when they opened. More than 60 people were lined up outside the St. Paul’s Anglican Church on West Side shortly after 7 a.m.

“My vote counts, my vote is very important. I have that right and I just needed to vote,” said Lillian Harkless, who went to the Grand Rapids city clerk’s satellite office at Election Central on Market Avenue SW to register and vote on Election Day.

She said she was looking for a candidate who would “keep the peace and keep everyone kind.”

“Just come on, vote,” she urged others who had not yet done so. “You can do it. You can do it. Find a way. Ride your bike. Walk. Take the bus. Take your car. You’ve got to vote. … It’s your right.”

“I think the silliest thing is people saying, ‘My vote doesn’t matter’ because everything is so cumulative, for one,” same-day voter Nicole Eseh added. “For two, elections literally get swayed by little votes, there are swing states, so your vote does matter. And if there’s like thousands of other people that think the same way that you do about not going to the polls, think about how much of a domino effect that can be.”

At Election Central, the last person to vote was Brandon Ouding, who at age 24 was voting for the first time.

Between the Grand Rapids clerk’s offices at City Hall and Election Central, 394 ballots had been issued as of late afternoon.

Statewide, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said, more than 28,000 people took advantage of same-day registration and voting. Most of those were in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids.

In Paw Paw Township, people started showing up at 4:30 a.m. By late afternoon, a long line stretched through the parking lot and then wrapped around the township hall.

Township Clerk Linda Jordan promised that anyone who was in line as of 8 p.m. would be allowed to vote no matter how long it takes, as state law requires.

People line up in Paw Paw to vote during the Nov. 3, 2020 election.
People line up in Paw Paw Township to vote during the Nov. 3, 2020 election.

The last person in line said she arrived just before 8 p.m. after getting out of work. She said she saw the line, went home, changed her clothes, grabbed a couple of candy bars to tide herself over and got back in line. It took her more than two and a half hours to make it to the door of the township hall. She finally cast her vote around 10:45 p.m.

She declined to say who she was voting for but said she was hoping for a change.

Jordan, the clerk, said it was the largest turnout she had ever seen since starting to run elections in 2006. She also noted that coronavirus mitigation practices, including cleaning, were slowing things down.

“We’ve also had people coming in who refuse to wear a mask, so we have to have them set up in a separate place to keep them away from the rest of our voters and our poll workers, so that’s an added situation,” she said.

With five precincts voting at Life Stream Church on Lake Michigan Drive in Allendale Township, more than 4,460 people cast their ballot there Tuesday. There was a line to get in for much of the afternoon, at one point stretching out the door and around the corner of the building. One person said it took him an hour to cast his ballot. By about 7:15 p.m., that line had cleared up. Only a few people were still waiting to vote after 8 p.m.

In 2016, a rush of new voters — mostly Grand Valley State University students bused in from campus — led to long lines at Life Stream. To prevent that this time, a satellite clerk’s office was set up on campus for the first time for students to register. GVSU said Tuesday afternoon some 400 students had used that office to vote absentee.

Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck said most of the challenges his crews faced Tuesday stemmed from the large volume of in-person voters. In fact, he said he had to print more than 2,000 more ballots to be distributed to precincts that were cutting it close because they were seeing larger-than-expected turnout.

“People are engaged in the process, they want their voice to be heard, they want to make that difference irregardless of what we may be going through as a country,” Roebuck said.

The town of Constantine saw a law line Tuesday evening, too.

As of around 3:30 p.m., Kent County Elections Director Gerrid Uzarski told News 8 he had been told turnout in East Grand Rapids had already reached 85% turnout.

Countywide, Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons said she expected between 70% and 75% total turnout.

“It’s been a great Election Day. We’ve spent months preparing for this. Election Day went as smoothly as it possibly could have,” Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons said told News 8 around 9 p.m. “And now, polls are closed, the voters have had their say and now we get to work with tabulating and reporting and receiving those results.”

ABSENTEE TURNOUT

The Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says at least 3.26 million people voted absentee in Michigan, and she expected that figure to grow as more data was reported.

The option was popular for two reasons: First, it is easier than it used to be after Michigan voters approved no-reason absentee voting in 2018 and second, because officials have encouraged it as a way to keep lines at polls short and limit the spread of coronavirus.

“I like it. I don’t have to stand in line anywhere,” one voter who stopped by an absentee ballot drop box across from Calder Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids on Tuesday. “That makes it nice. Much more compelled to vote that way.”

As of about 10:30 a.m., Kent County as a whole had seen some 204,654 absentee ballots returned — 90.61% of those issued. It’s those votes that are particularly laborious to count.

“That’s where getting our election results really takes time,” Posthumus Lyons said, explaining that the security checks to confirm the ballots are legitimate take a while.

“It takes time to count votes, especially when it comes to the absentee ballots. We’re not going to sacrifice security and accuracy for speed, but we’re going to make sure we get those results as soon as possible,” she continued. “I’m very hopeful that we can have our results by tomorrow afternoon, tomorrow early evening.”

Ottawa County said that before polls opened Tuesday, more than 86,800 absentee ballots had been returned. About 101,700 voters — or about 46% — had requested an absentee ballot.

Benson said preliminary estimates put the number of in-person voters between 2 million and 2.5 million, which puts the total number of votes — both absentee and in person — above 5 million. A precise number was not available Tuesday night as data was still being crunched. The last time there were so many was in November 2008. There have been suggestions that it could be Friday before every vote is counted.

“In our primary just in August, 1.6 million votes were cast absentee. It took 40 hours to get all of those counted. There’s going to be twice as many in this election and you can assume it could take twice as long. And I think that’s why we have to buckle up and be patient because we’ve got to give our clerks the support they need and our secretary of state the support she needs to make sure that we get this right,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told News 8 in a live Zoom interview after polls closed.

2016 AND NOW

In the 2016 presidential election, Ottawa County’s Jamestown Township voted Republican in a landslide, with 85% of voters picking President Donald Trump. It was one of the reddest municipalities in Michigan. It’s still a tough task to find someone voting Democrat there.

“I just believe in what the Republican Party stands for. I’m not voting personalities,” Doug Armstrong, who said he voted straight-ticket Republican, said.

He was confident in the security of his vote at the precinct. Another in-person voter, Ronda Fisher, said she didn’t feel comfortable voting absentee.

“Makes me a little nervous. That’s why I came to vote here. I just figured put it in right here on the day of election,” she said.

In 2016, Trump won Kentwood’s Precinct 8 by one vote — 798-797, not counting absentee ballots. This time, there were no lines but steady traffic all day at Princeton Christian Reformed Church.

“I was able to vote in the 2016 election, I had just turned 18. I just didn’t know how to do it, so I chose not to,” one voter, Haley, said. “This election, now that I’m informed, I want to see change in this country and get involved.”

“I voted for what I thought was best for our country at this point,” another voter, Mallory, said. “I voted for rights for everybody. I want to see a better country than what we’ve experienced the last four years. So I voted my conscience and for everybody that doesn’t have a voice right now.”

“I always ask people the same question, are you better off today or were you better off four, five, six years ago?” voter Mike Russo said.

SOME PROBLEMS AT POLLING PLACES

There were a few reports of technical issues at some West Michigan polling places, though most were minor and swiftly resolved.

The chairwoman of Ward 2 Precinct 41 at North Park Elementary in Grand Rapids said the tabulator went down but the city was working to resolve the issue. While the machine was down, all ballots were held in an auxiliary bin and to be counted after repairs were made.

Polling officials at Ward 3 Precinct 75, located at Adams Park Apartments in Grand Rapids said election workers trained to use the electronic pollbook didn’t show up Tuesday morning. Other poll workers had to manually enter voter information and those ballots will be tabulated electronically later in the day.

In northeast Kent County, the Oakfield Township clerk told News 8 their electronic pollbooks were down briefly Tuesday morning. Voters were able to cast their ballots, but those ballots must be counted separately. The hardware issue has since been resolved.

In Ottawa County, a few people in clerk’s offices tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend and some poll workers backed out late because of virus concerns and quarantine issues. However, Clerk Justin Roebuck said he called up some former local clerks to help fill in so there was no delay for those who wanted to vote. Roebuck said local clerks were “taking every possible precaution” to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including using masks and other personal protection equipment.

Secretary of State Benson warned about misinformation being shared in Flint in an attempt to confuse voters. Anyone who sees election misinformation can report it to the state at misinformation@michigan.gov.

“We received reports that an unknown party is purposefully spreading misinformation via robocalls in Flint in an attempt to confuse voters there, and I want to ensure everyone who plans to vote in person understands they must do so — or be in line to do so — by 8 p.m. today. Lines in the area and across the state are minimal and moving quickly, and Michigan voters can feel confident that leaders across state and local government are vigilant against these kinds of attacks on their voting rights and attempts at voter suppression, and we will be working quickly all day to stamp out any misinformation aimed at preventing people from exercising their right to vote.”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

Benson noted this is the first time all the Detroit precincts opened on time in recent memory.

“The same can be said in Flint. That was in no small part due to the hard work of the clerks and poll workers who stepped up because of the pandemic,” Benson said at a briefing Tuesday morning.

She said there had been a steady stream of voters with people going in and out quickly.

—News 8 reporters John Domol, Justin Kollar, Ken Kolker, Joe LaFurgey, Emily Linnert, Donovan Long and Lynsey Mukomel contributed to this report.