At the Ann Arbor Democratic Party’s first meeting after the November 2020 election, program chair Ingrid Ault pointed to figures showing rural York Township led the county with an 87 percent turnout. Ann Arbor was ahead of only Pittsfield Township’s 58 percent and just behind the city of Ypsilanti’s 60 percent.

“The caveat is always these are registered voters,” stresses Ault in a later interview. That “probably skews the data, because you have so much more movement in and out of cities than you do in the rural communities.”

“The number of registered voters is arbitrary,” says county clerk Larry Kestenbaum. “The number of voters is absolutely solid.” | Photo: Mark Bialek

At the meeting, county clerk and elections maven Larry Kestenbaum took it a step further: “Don’t pay attention to percentages,” he said bluntly. That’s because it can take as much as eight years after a registered voter moves before they’re removed from the rolls—and why York Township’s stable population shows a higher turnout than Ann Arbor’s churning population.

“A lot of people, especially in a town like Ann Arbor where people are coming and going, they move away, and they leave their voter registrations behind, because they don’t think about it,” Kestenbaum explains in a recent interview. “And the National Voter Registration Act and state law greatly restrict the ability to cancel someone’s voter registration without their initiating it … [which] “inflates the size of the voter rolls, and so the percentages are understated because of all those extra folks.”

Instead of percentages, he says, “the number you should pay attention to is the number of people who voted. The number of registered voters is arbitrary. The number of voters is absolutely solid.”

By that measure, county voters are anything but apathetic: The number of people voting rose dramatically over the last six even-year elections, particularly in presidential years. That’s likely due to the galvanizing presence of Republican Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020: The 2016 Clinton/Trump election drew 191,476 voters, or 7 percent more than the 2012 Obama/Romney race. The count grew another 14 percent in the 2020 Biden/Trump contest, to 217,820.

Fewer people vote in non-presidential elections, but those, too, saw big gains: The number voting rose 30 percent between 2012 and 2018, and fell only slightly (by 103 votes) in 2022.

Education is crucial for predicting voter turnout, Kestenbaum says, and “Washtenaw County is like the tenth-most highly educated county in the nation out of 3,000 counties. And so we have ordinarily a very high voter turnout here compared to almost anywhere else … In a homeowner neighborhood in Ann Arbor like Burns Park or Lansdowne, the turnout by national standards is spectacular.”

For party activists, high turnover also requires a constant effort to enroll new voters. Ault says the Dems ran a “concerted student voter outreach program this year” through the morning of Election Day. Kestenbaum says turnout among voters eighteen to twenty-one “was well over 80 percent.”

While voter turnout percentages can’t reliably be compared with other communities, Ault believes they are useful for comparing turnout in the city’s five wards. She points to the 2020 presidential election as typical: The Fifth Ward’s was highest, at 65 percent, the First lowest with 54 percent. Ault credits Five’s “consistently higher voter turnout” to “people who make the community feel like a community [with] a lot of very specific community engagement activities [like] the Water Hill Music Festival.”

Kestenbaum points to another change: Last year, “about half of the vote was absentee.” The percentage of voters casting absentee ballots had been steadily rising, he says, but took a big leap with the confluence of state voters approving “no reason” absentee voting and the pandemic.

Many more Democrats than Republicans vote absentee. Last fall saw a “huge partisan thirty-point difference” in the Democrats’ favor in the county, he says, and similar but smaller increases statewide. “It’s because of absentee that Democrats won the [Michigan] Supreme Court.”