Long lines in GR, Kzoo for same-day voter registration

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan’s new rules allowing same-day voter registration led to long, snaking lines at the city halls in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo Tuesday.

In Grand Rapids, about 300 people went to the city clerk’s office to get registered so they could cast ballots in the presidential primary. Some said they waited more than three hours.

“I kind of anticipated there would be a line to register, for sure,” Mark Reid, who said he had been waiting about two and a half hours, said. “It’s the price we pay for not registering in advance, but we won’t have to wait in line again in November, so that’s going to be great. We can get it done today.”

“I expected the line to be long — not wrapping around long, but you know,” fellow waiter Osvaldo Gonzales said. “I was only here for two hours, that’s like a movie.”

Some noted many of the people waiting seemed to be younger.

Reid said for the most part, the queue didn’t seem to be deterring people. They were sticking it out. Several people praised city workers for bringing them water and reading material in the form of various pamphlets they had on hand. Brenna Argue, the last person in line, spent the time on her laptop, including streaming the season finale of “The Bachelor.”

The only problem was that a handful of people were already registered to vote and didn’t know it. In those few cases, even after waiting for hours, the people were turned away because the clerk’s office was only set up to accommodate specific situations, like same-day registration.

EVEN LONGER WAIT IN KALAMAZOO

In Kalamazoo, people waited upwards of four hours to register. The line stretched across City Hall, out the door and down the ramp in front of the building. Once it started to get dark, the entire group was moved inside.

“We’re joking that we feel the burn in our feet,” one person said, referencing the “Feel the Bern” anthem of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ voters.

Good Samaritans provided pizza to feed those still waiting. Eventually, pies started coming in from all over the country. People were calling Domino’s to send it.

Many waiting were college students who hadn’t gotten around to registering. They said they’d gotten too caught up in their studies and jobs to get registered ahead of time.

“I’ve been here for about 45, 50 minutes now and I’m just here to vote,” Western Michigan University student Imani Tinter said. “I’m going to register than vote because I thought I registered last year but evidently I didn’t.”

Despite the long wait, many were in good spirits, passing the time by talking to one another, singing, dancing and even starting a game of telephone.

“We’ve had quite the turnout here at City Hall with people registering to vote and then either voting absentee ballots or going to their precincts,” Kalamazoo City Clerk Scott Borling said. “It’s difficult to say what’s normal because this is only the second election we’ve run where you can register on election day, so it’s really difficult to predict what’s going to happen.”

But he said he was “excited” to see so many.

“We’re doing our best to process them, but it’s a two-step process today,” he explained. “We have to register them to vote first and then be able to issue them an absentee ballot, so that’s why it takes a little bit more time.”

People wait in line at the Kalamazoo City Hall for same-day voter registration. (March 10, 2020)

Kalamazoo County Clerk Tim Snow and Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson were helping people start registering online. That would speed the process up when they reached the desk.

Anderson said that though same-day registration was available, people should still try to register early in the future to prevent long waits. He said the same-day registration Tuesday exceeded expectations.

“If we think this seems like a lot for a March 10 election, well then, we need to think about at the state level how we’re going to help our local clerks deal with this kind of thing if it happens in November,” Anderson said.

Officials in both Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo promised that anyone waiting in line to register at 8 p.m. would be allowed to do so and vote.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said that Ann Arbor, Dearborn and East Lansing had similar long waits. She said more than 13,000 citizens statewide registered Tuesday, more than half of which showed up at clerk’s offices after 4:30 p.m.

“These citizens were bottlenecked into one location in each of their communities,” Benson said. “They are required by law to register and vote in one location: their clerk’s office. That meant the infrastructure set up to handle maybe 10 or 20 or 30 registrations and ballots cast in a day now had to grapple with hundreds of people showing up.”

She said she and other election officials are already working on a plan to resolve the issues for the next election. She wants to open more satellite locations in the communities that saw problems Tuesday so people can register quickly and legally.

NUMBER OF ABSENTEE BALLOTS SKYROCKETS

When Michigan voters passed same-day registration in 2018, they also approved no-reason absentee voting, which led to a spike across the state for Tuesday’s election.

Absentee voting across the state has just about doubled over the 2016 primary. The state says the flood of absentee ballots could slow down the counting process, leading to later results than in years past.

As of Tuesday evening, Kent County said it had issued more than 61,100 absentee ballots; in March 2016, it issued only about 27,170. Nearly 54,900 ballots had been returned to the county; an increase of nearly 90% over March 2016, when the county got about 25,290 ballots back. It’s an increase of about 125%.

“Now there’s really no excuse. If you want to avoid the precinct you can, anybody can get an absentee voter ballot,” Kent County Election Director Gerrid Uzarski said. “That’s a serious convenience for the voter and a lot of people are taking advantage of that.”

As of early Tuesday morning, the city of Grand Rapids said it had sent out about 1,600 absentee ballots and gotten 1,300 of those back. In March 2016, the city got about 6,560 absentee votes.

The Ottawa County clerk told News 8 that absentee voting was up 80%.

In the city of Kalamazoo, the clerk said his office had issued more than 5,500 absentee ballots, compared to about 1,970 in 2016.

Uzarski said that as more voters go absentee, it will make the process smoother for absentee and in-person voters alike.

“The theory is it’s going to remove people from the election day turnout, away from the precincts and have them just vote in the absentee counting board instead,” Uzarski said. “We don’t expect very long waits, because of that, we hope that the turnout is reflected in the absentee counting board to help us temper that additional hype.”

Uzarski said the county was not expecting a record turnout Tuesday. He expected a turnout of around 40%. However, officials were prepared for anything over that historical average.

—News 8’s Justin Kollar, Kyle Mitchell and Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.

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