Is Michigan’s election system ready for 2020?

September 30, 2020

A UM-Dearborn political science professor breaks down why this election won’t be like any other and our prospects for surviving it.

A graphic showing the opposition of Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Credit: Phil Roeder and Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons. Graphic by Violet Dashi.

This article was originally published on September 30, 2020.

When we reached out to Julio Borquez for this piece a few weeks back, the UM-Dearborn associate professor of political science requested a list of topics we’d want to talk about. The last on the list was: ‘On a scale from smooth sailing to total election apocalypse, how do you think things are going to go?’ The good-humored Borquez wrote us back a few hours before our interview foreshadowing his response: “I'm still trying to come up with an answer to the last question...I need a catchy label for not-quite-total apocalypse.” Borquez is hardly alone in thinking this election is likely to test our institutions and cohesiveness as a country in ways that leave historians reaching for precedent. Here’s what Borquez had to say about the issues that concern him most, both in Michigan and nationwide. Our conversation has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.

Associate Professor of Political Science Julio Borquez
Associate Professor of Political Science Julio Borquez

So there’s obviously a lot that makes this election atypical, but if you had to pick a few issues you’re watching particularly closely, what’s on your list?

Well, I guess we should begin by stating the obvious — that we don’t have a whole lot of experience holding elections in the midst of a global pandemic. So that’s the background, but it’s also background that makes a lot of the other mischief that was always going to be present a lot easier to pull off. For example, it’s pretty clear that part of the strategy for the Trump campaign was always going to involve undermining public confidence in the process. So the need for many states to pivot to vote-by-mail as a public health matter has now become a tool for undermining trust — which is why you see Trump claiming, erroneously, that mail-in voting is plagued by fraud. 

This quick pivot to more voting-by-mail presents all kinds of challenges. Just in terms of the volume of absentee voting, it’s pretty staggering what the state is up against. If you go back to 2016, there were 1.3 million absentee ballots cast in the general election. By comparison, there were 1.6 million absentee ballots cast in the August 2020 primary — and that was out of 2.5 million total ballots. So that number will likely at least double for the 2020 general election. The last figure I can dig up, and this number is already more than two weeks old, is that the state has already received more than 2 million requests for absentee ballots. I guess one good thing about Michigan is the fact that this pivot to mail-in voting wasn’t completely a last-minute thing. Proposition 3 from 2018 did open the way for no-excuse absentee voting, so that was already in the works. But it’s very hard to tell if preparations are going to be adequate because, again, the situation is unprecedented. 

I think the other big issue, and this relates directly to the pandemic too, is the shortage of poll workers. Now the Secretary of State has launched a recruitment drive to try to cope with that, and we even have students here on campus who are trying to get young people to work the polls. But it’s very difficult to tell how well those efforts are going. And if we’re short on poll workers, that could mean everything from fewer polling locations to longer lines to a longer wait for election results. 

I want to dig deeper into the issues that could be triggered by more mail-in voting. Beyond the volume challenge, how else could this impact the election here in Michigan?

Well, there could be a number of effects. One of the things that happened in the August primary, for example, is that there was a large number of disqualified absentee ballots. It was over 10,000 ballots in Michigan.

And I just want to inject a bit of context and remind people that the margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election in Michigan was about 10,000 votes.

That’s right, it was around 10,700. And in the Michigan primary, the greatest reason for those disqualified ballots was late arrivals, but there were also things like signature verification issues. And this gets to a larger issue with mail-in voting: There are actually lots of little things that can go wrong. If you did it yourself in August, you probably became aware of this. Signatures might not match up. You might sign Bill instead of William or Kathy instead of Katherine. For me, sometimes I use my middle name and sometimes I don’t, and to tell you the truth, I don’t remember what I did when I registered to vote. There can also be discrepancies in addresses. People can forget to insert their ballots into that outer privacy sleeve. In fact, what to do with so-called “naked ballots” that don’t arrive in a privacy sleeve is already the subject of a court case in Pennsylvania.

Like I said, in Michigan, the biggest issue seemed to be late arrivals and what’s important to note here is that there was a state court ruling just last week establishing that ballots can be postmarked as late as the day before the election and can be counted up to two weeks after election day. That ruling will undoubtedly be appealed, but that’s where we are at the moment.

I want to ask you about a related issue and that is this idea that a greater disqualification rate among absentee ballots, which was about 1 percent nationally in the 2016 election compared to about one-hundredth of a percent for in-person voting, could impact one party more than the other. Can you explain that?

Well, this is a very interesting issue and now we’re getting into poll numbers, which is some of my favorite stuff. So it seems that the Trump line about the inherent fraud in voting-by-mail is resonating with Republicans. Just a couple weeks ago, Pew released a national survey and what they found was that 43 percent of Republicans thought fraud was a major problem with voting-by-mail. Only 11 percent of Democrats believe that. Now if you look at the percentage of people who intend to vote by mail, and these are mostly national figures, Democrats are much more apt to vote by mail by a margin of about 30 points. Whether they will or not, we don’t know. But that sentiment is backed up by data in several states that track this, where absentee ballot requests from Democrats outnumber those from Republicans.

Now what’s interesting is that prior studies that have looked at voting-by-mail, primarily in the Western states where they’ve been doing it for a long time, have found that it doesn’t give one party an advantage. But now the landscape is completely different. You have this rapid pivot to vote-by-mail. You have the Trump campaign making a big deal about fraud, which could mean his voters are more likely to vote in person. Meanwhile, the other side is saying they’re going to vote by mail in greater numbers. So the thought is you could get more overall disqualification among Democratic votes, simply because more of their votes were cast absentee.

And just to do a little back-of-the-envelope math: Hillary Clinton received about 2,269,000 votes in Michigan in 2016. If we assume a similar turnout and 40 percent of Democratic voters vote by mail, then assuming a 1 percent disqualification rate and your 30 percent absentee voter differential between Democratic and Republican voters, that’s about 6,800 more Democratic ballots that wouldn’t get counted. And again, the margin of victory for Trump in Michigan was about 10,000 votes.

That’s true, but it’s hard to say, of course, that this alone would be decisive. One of the other things I’ve been stewing about recently is this thought that every week there is something new that, at the time, feels like a game changer for the election. For instance, we had the publication of Bob Woodward’s book, and more recently the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and now the New York Times story about Trump’s taxes. Now in the old days, it used to be that something that happened five weeks out from the election might not play a huge role come election day. But now, when one of those game-changing moments happens, the difference is I might have my ballot sitting there on my kitchen table. So now, I get pissed off, I feel like we have to “make America great again” or I’m upset about the way the Republicans plan to move forward with a vote on a Supreme Court nominee, and I channel that anger, or enthusiasm, into voting. So people are going to be making decisions about who to vote for — and whether to vote — over a period of several weeks. That could affect voter decision making and turnout in unpredictable ways. Commentators like to talk about the electoral climate, but this longer period of voting means that we’re all sort of living in our own electoral microclimates.

Well, one forecast that seems less in doubt is that this will be the most litigated election in U.S. history. In fact, some people say it already is because the switch to mail-in voting has prompted more than 300 lawsuits in 44 states. Give us your sense of how that litigation could play out in Michigan.

Well, before the election, I’ll be paying attention to that court ruling I mentioned regarding postmarks and instituting that two-week period when ballots can arrive. That will be appealed, but either way, we are likely to have a prolonged period of vote counting and that is likely to inspire more litigation. On election night, we'll have to watch the early counts of in-person voting. If, for example, Trump leads in early returns in Michigan, and that's certainly a possibility, the Trump campaign will do everything they can to disrupt the counting of mail ballots. So as far as litigation goes, I expect the campaigns will take an all-of-the-above approach. As I mentioned, mail-in voting presents so many little points where you can challenge: addresses, signatures, privacy sleeves. It’s very fertile territory.

Finally, given all these issues we’ve talked about, where will the election fall on that scale between “smooth sailing” and “total election apocalypse.” You hinted that you preferred a term short of “election apocalypse.”

Well, I don’t know if I have the right words. The words “unprecedented” or “uncertain” are so overused, but they are true in this case. We don’t have a template and so I don’t think we can really be prepared for what’s coming. It’s because of the pandemic, and it’s because one major party is determined to engage in a flat-out disinformation campaign that’s targeting the election process itself, and they’re doing that to a degree that I’ve never seen in my lifetime of paying attention to elections. So it’s not going to go smoothly, because we can’t say, ‘Well this is what we’ve done in the past to deal with situations like this.’ There is no solution we can pull off the shelf.

One thing that I’m quite concerned about is if we have a prolonged period where the results are being disputed, which seems possible or even likely at this point. The committed partisan voices on both sides are more committed than in 2000 and certainly more than in 1980. And they have more powerful platforms to operate from, both to galvanize their supporters and demonize the opposition. And it’s...yeah…[LONG PAUSE] know, maybe I do have to go with your “total apocalypse” answer. [LAUGHS] I was really trying to stay away from it, but it’s…it’s not going to be fun.

I’ll say this: There have been times in past elections, as the campaigns have worn on, where I felt like I was reaching a saturation point. I’m supposed to be paying attention to this stuff for a living, right? But even I found it so annoying and so depressing, I was tempted to completely turn off the news. As of now, I’m not there yet. But we’ll see. We still have about a month to go.