Extra Early Voting Opportunity in Heavily Democratic Area Raises Eyebrows

'One clerk decided the voters of one city would get a voting opportunity those in the rest of the state didn't get'

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Some voters in Lansing got an early opportunity to vote that others in the state didn't have, and some Republicans say that bonus day for absentee voting looked suspiciously like a maneuver to boost turnout for Democrats.

The early absentee voting on Sunday, Oct. 28, took place at the South Washington Office Complex, a site located in a Democrat-heavy portion of Lansing. The timing, noon to 4 p.m., coincided with people getting out of church.

Official notice of the Sunday voting opportunity was posted on the city's website. Registered voters in Michigan can get an absentee ballot if they meet one of six requirements. Many local communities across the state, including Lansing, allowed absentee voting on Nov. 3.

But it is believed none set up an earlier day and promoted the opportunity for residents to vote by absentee ballot.

Trevor Pittsley, a Republican poll watcher, said he found out the about extra chance for absentee voting on Facebook. He showed up at the voting site and witnessed what was going on.

"I didn't see any buses, but it sure looked like some people carpooled to get there,” Pittsley said. “There were signs all around town saying 'Vote Today.' There was a pro-Proposal 2 tent (a union-backed ballot initiative) right there, near the gate. A lady with a UAW emblem on her shirt was directing traffic. The whole thing generally seemed to be a unionized process.

"Inside the room, I heard comments such as — 'Why didn't we try this last year?' I also heard people offer to help voters who weren't clear on the proposals. It looked to me like they were very organized."

Pittsley said he did not intervene because he was not acting as a poll watcher that day.

"This was absentee ballot voting on a Sunday," Pittsley said. "I didn't poll watch, because you're not really allowed to poll watch in that situation. I taped what was going on with my iPod."

The photos in this article were taken by Pittsley.

In an interview about the bonus voting day, Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope defended the city's action. 

CapCon: Was this an effort to increase voter turnout for Democrats?

Swope: It was an opportunity to get out more voters in Lansing.

CC: But, because Lansing is more of a Democrat-leaning city, isn't it likely most of those voters were Democrats?

Swope: That's true.

CC: Couldn't this lead to a situation where both political parties start adding voting hours in places where more of their base voters are likely to turnout?

Swope: I suppose that's true, but different townships and different municipalities have different hours. I'm not responsible for those. My focus is just on the city of Lansing.

CC: Regarding the hours the polls were open, from noon to 4 p.m., were those chosen to accommodate people who were getting out of church?

Swope: It was to make it convenient for folks. Yeah, that was part of the reason for choosing the time.

CC: Do you see any constitutional problems with doing this regarding equal protection? If you live in most other places in Michigan, you didn't have that opportunity.

Swope: I don't foresee that. Again, different places have different times that people can vote.

CC: Were those on the Democratic side given advanced information about what was happening that the Republicans didn’t receive?

Swope: Nope. I think some nonpartisan organizations were told ahead of time that this was something we might do. I had also talked with one of my council members about it. I guess it really wasn't something no one had heard about, but, as far as the notice was concerned, both parties were informed of it at the same time.

Only a couple of hundred voters voted that day.

Republican political strategist Greg McNeilly, said the decision to allow the Sunday voting wasn't nonpartisan.

"It's essentially a situation of injustice," McNeilly said. "One clerk decided the voters of one city would get a voting opportunity those in the rest of the state didn't get. And it was done in a way that was very advantageous for one voting group."

Michigan Secretary of State Spokesman Fred Woodhams said he wasn't aware of anything that would prohibit clerks from offering people the opportunity to cast an in-person absentee ballot ahead of the election as long as the voter had a qualified reason to get an absentee ballot.

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