Williamston voter turnout exceeds expectations

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In the past, Williamston had two precincts, one for the residents who live south of Grand River and the other for those who live north of it. For Tuesday’s primary, there was only one precinct located at Williamston Middle School. Photo by: Regan Holgate

Even with absentee ballot numbers higher than ever, Williamston polling reached an unexpected high in the Michigan primary on March 10. 

Election chair Mark Zajac said Williamston reached over 40% voter turnout with an hour still left at the polls. 

“The numbers are better than what both Holly and I were expecting,” said Zajac.

Election official Pete Zylstra said he thought polling would be slow.

“I’m thinking that just because it’s the primaries, and there are not many things to vote for,” said Zylstra.

New rules

This primary was a test for most city clerks as new rules from the state of Michigan came into play at the polls. 

Thompson said same-day registration is crucial because it gives voters the chance to register the day of and still be able to cast their votes. 

“Now, people can walk in with a piece of paper that we just have to verify,” said Zajac. “The state has pretty much figured out all of the nuances of election day.”

A city clerk must be at the city hall at all times, according to new voting rules. Thompson said it’s a different dynamic, but she thought it would help make the process at the end of the night more efficient. 

“The state has been in constant contact. They’ve tried to figure out every little detail and loophole that we can use to make everything happen,” said Thompson. 

The introduction of permanent absentee votes largely affected poll numbers, but Thompson said it’s been beneficial for both her and her deputy clerk. 

Absentee votes

AVs allow for anyone to absentee vote. With the new rules, being able to process the absentee ballots before polls close is going to make a huge difference. 

Thompson said return numbers aren’t always great, but she is hopeful.

“We issued 632 [absentee ballots] and received back 537,” said Thompson. “It’s a really good return because a lot of people get their ballot and don’t want to fill it out, but our return rate is pretty good right now.” 

Not only do AVs make voting easier for citizens, Thompson said it makes things more efficient for her.

“I think having the permanent absentee vote is a godsend for a lot of us,” said Thompson. “Being able to split it up between two places is going to help us. 

Zajac said AVs are helpful in the precinct’s quest for efficiency.

“In some precincts, people are waiting upwards of seven hours,” said Zajac. “That doesn’t happen with an absentee ballot. There are people that process them, which makes it efficient.”

Democratic party poll watcher Nicole Ellefson said she is intrigued to see how this new rule will affect voting numbers. 

“It’ll be an interesting election to see how the new changes are going to make a difference in turnout from absentee to personal,” said Ellefson. “It’s really important that there are multiple ways for every citizen to access his or her right to vote.”


According to the Center Disease Control and Prevention, these are the reported cases of the coronavirus as of March 10. During polling hours, there were no confirmed cases in Michigan. Credit: Regan Holgate

Though the first cases of coronavirus in Michigan were confirmed just hours after polls closed Tuesday, fears of the disease did not dissuade voters from showing up to vote. 

“I know it’s on everybody’s mind,” said Thompson. “Luckily, we had a guy who came in first to vote, and he hooked us up with a hand sanitizer machine right at the end of the polling.”

The disease is the cause of many closures to public gatherings throughout the country and the world.

Ohio State and Harvard both suspended in-person classes Tuesday to slow the spread of coronavirus and keep students as safe as possible. 

Ellefson said she understands the possible risk of public gatherings, but she doesn’t see any peril at this time.

“We need to be vigilant,” said Ellefson. “But I think so far we are safe.”

Even though it was not a significant concern on the day of the primaries, the coronavirus still affects the voting process.

Thompson said she heard about other precincts having trouble when hand sanitizer comes into contact with ballots. She said some ballots weren’t able to be tabulated because the hand sanitizer was warping them. 

What this means for November

Tuesday’s primary was a trial run for Williamston to test its processes for the general election on Nov. 3. 

Williamston’s last busy period came just before 7 p.m. as the polls were nearing close. Photo by: Regan Holgate

“Just going through the processes to get everything fine tuned when we hit November is important because it’s going to be crazy,” said Thompson.

After seeing the voter turnout on Tuesday, Zajac said he thinks this means there are going to be a lot of voters come November. 

As they gear toward preparing for the general election, Thompson said the outcome of Tuesday’s primary will help them to know what they need to focus on for the future. 

“I think we were well prepared today, and we need to keep this flowing through November and continue to put our best foot forward,” said Thompson. 

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