More time, income let Michigan retirees influence elections

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By JASMINE HALL and HANNAH BROCK
Capital News Service

LANSINGRetirees have more time and money to be politically active than younger voters, experts say.

A study of campaign finance filings of five of Michigan’s largest counties found that retirees made about 10% of the 3,225 contributions to candidates for county treasurer, sheriff and drain commissioner. The review by Michigan State University journalism students covered contributions given between January of 2018 until the post-primary filing deadline of Sept. 23, 2020. It didn’t include the time just before the election when contributions may be most intense. 

Retirees also made up close to 6% of the 642 contributions that were over $500, the records show.

Older residents tend to be more involved in politics at the local level, said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Nearly a third of Michigan’s residents are 50 or older. But according to a survey by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, 60% of voters in the November 2018 election were 50 years old or older.

Retirees are socialized to be politically active and have more free time to work at polling locations or make phone calls for candidates, said Marty Jordan, a Michigan State University political science professor. Those factors relate to retirees choosing to contribute to candidate campaigns.

“We are socialized to participate in politics, just like you’re socialized to brush your teeth,” Jordan said. “It’s a learned behavior over time and the more frequently and often you do it, the more likely you are to continue doing it.”

Retirees aren’t just dedicating more time to the elections. Their money follows their interest. The Pew Research Center reports that 32% of Americans 65 and older contributed to political campaigns. Only 9% of people between 18 and 29 did.

Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Kent and Genesee County have the largest population of residents over the age of 65 in Michigan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These counties have the largest populations in Michigan, as well.

This can impact local elections significantly, Schuster said. At the county level, where political action committees are less active, donors with disposable income — often retirees or wealthy members of the community — will be the driving force of their political environment.

Out of the state’s five largest counties, Macomb has the most retirees contribute to the sheriff, drain commissioner and treasurer campaigns during the study period. Around 100 out of the total 1,000 contributions were from retirees. Macomb also had the highest percentage of retirees that donated over $500, according to candidates’ campaign finance statements.

Genesee County did not have the highest number of individual retiree contributions, with around 62 contributions; however, it did have the largest percentage made up of retiree contributions – around 15%. The percentage was greatly impacted by contributions to sheriff candidate Phil Hart. Nearly 35% were from retirees.

Of the 166 contributions to Hart during the study period, 58 were retirees. His campaign was also made up of smaller contributions, but there were four contributions over $500 – two from retirees. A total of 200 contributions were collected by Hart and his opponent.

But while Genesee retirees had significant interest in Hart’s campaign, the other Genesee candidates for sheriff, treasurer and drain commissioner received around 1% of their contributions from retirees, according to their statements.

In the other four large counties there was a more even distribution of retiree contributions.

Retirees already contribute to 10% of local election campaigns in large counties like Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. In smaller communities, where the percentage of the population that is retired or over the age of 65 is highest, they could have even more power, Schuster said.

In the top five largest counties in Michigan, the average number of donations per candidate was 153, according to contribution statements. In smaller counties, where not just the overall population is smaller, but the number of contributions to candidates is also fewer in total, it is even more clear who is funding campaigns.

A third of the population of Lake County, located in Northwestern Michigan, 11,000 residents, are 65 years or older. In the county sheriff’s race, nearly one-third of the contributors were retirees.

Incumbent Sheriff Dennis Robinson, received almost half of his 17 contributions from retirees. Other smaller counties like Clare and Iosco, show the same trend of a third of sheriff candidate contributions coming from retirees.

“The ultimate power is in votes, but obviously money has a huge impact on campaigns,” said Lisa Cooper, manager of advocacy for the Michigan AARP. “It affects who gets their message out.”

Younger voters don’t have the disposable income or the financial stability to contribute to local campaigns, Schuster said. In a survey done by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Michigan AARP retirees said they were confident in their economic future, which makes it easier to contribute to campaigns.

Even if young adults are contributing, “donating $3 doesn’t have the same impact that donating $500 or $1000 dollars has,” Schuster said.

Livingston County Clerk Elizabeth Hundley agrees. It is not the same as those who are “more mature in their profession and are able to give money,” she said.

“When I was going through college I was lucky to have grocery money,” she said.

Seniors get involved with local elections because they’re all about what happens on the street in front of their house and their neighborhoods, said Robert Kolt, a Michigan State University advertising and public relations professor.

“Seniors will commit dollars if they have the financial resources, and not so much (because) they think they’re going to benefit, but if (they think) their kids and grandkids will benefit,” said Kolt, a former volunteer president for AARP who now serves on the Michigan Community Service Commission as an advocate for senior citizens.

Young people are just discovering the power of their vote, however; seniors have been aware of their power for a long time, Kolt said.

Seniors are also more likely to pay attention to fear appeals from candidates, such as a potential noisy development behind their house or inconvenient road construction, Kolt said.

“They’ve got the time. There’s no excuse. Absentee voting is easy,” Kolt said. “They care, so that’s why they’re so targeted by politicians.”

This story is part of a series that looked at finance reports filed for Michigan county treasurer, drain commissioner and sheriff campaigns. Michigan State University students from four classes examined reports filed between Jan. 1 2018 and the post primary filing deadline of Sept. 23, 2020.

Stories in this series: