DETROIT, Michigan—As a bitter cold wind and occasional snow squall blew through this city’s New Center neighborhood on Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of voters in the largely Black Democratic stronghold deposited ballots in drop boxes or inside the city elections office.
They were among over 2.5 million residents to submit early ballots in the critical swing state so far this election. Dee Graham, a 64-year-old Detroiter who hasn’t missed a vote in decades, said he “ain’t seen nothing like this before 2020.”
“That’s COVID. They’re afraid of COVID,” he told The Daily Beast, gesturing toward a line of vehicles on the boulevard outside the office. “They’re not even getting out of their cars.”
But as Election Day draws near, the state’s surging COVID-19 caseload is only part of the anxiety and uncertainty in Michigan, where Joe Biden has maintained a lead in most polls. There’s heightened fear of far-right violence in the wake of a foiled plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month, as well as an ongoing political fight over allowing guns at polling locations.
Meanwhile, slow mail delivery in Detroit and a failure by the city clerk to send out absentee ballots on time could undermine Democrats’ chances to flip the state—which had been theirs in presidential races for decades—after losing by 10,000 votes in 2016. That’s prompted a push to convince voters to use hundreds of drop boxes throughout the state.
As of Friday, more than 120,000 Detroiters had returned absentee ballots, according to an election official. By comparison, the city received about 40,000 absentee ballots total in 2016. Every voter who spoke with The Daily Beast pointed to the virus as at least part of the reason for their early vote. The pandemic hammered Detroit in April, and the state on Saturday recorded a new daily record with about 3,800 cases. For now, Detroit’s per capita totals are among Michigan’s lowest as the virus burns through conservative rural and outstate counties that were largely spared in the April wave.
About 16 miles to the north of New Center is St. Clair Shores in Macomb County, a largely white Obama-to-Trump swing county—and historical bellwether—that draws an outsize amount of attention from both parties. Kay, a St. Clair resident who voted early for President Donald Trump and declined to give her last name, said there’s “only some” fear of the virus here.
“People are voting early maybe partly because of [the virus], but mostly they just don’t want to wait in line,” she said.
Anxiety over violence is widespread in Michigan—Detroit News polling found 72 percent of the state’s residents expects post-election violence, and a similar number opposes allowing guns at the polls. However, that hasn’t stopped Republicans from challenging a new rule by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson that bans open carry within 100 feet of voting locations.
A lower court judge last week struck down the directive, ruling that only the GOP-controlled legislature can enact such changes. Benson is appealing to the state Supreme Court. Even if the rule is allowed, it’s unclear whether it would make a difference in some places, as several police chiefs and sheriffs have vowed not to enforce a ban.
Kay said she doesn’t expect militias to show up in St. Clair Shores, but she doesn’t have an issue with guns at the polls: “It’s people’s right, and most gun owners are responsible,” she told The Daily Beast. “It’s mostly non-gun owners who have a problem because they don’t understand it.”
In Detroit, Graham said he was not worried about militias—because he said they won’t come to Detroit, where at least one person at the elections office on Sunday was open carrying.
As in other key states flipped by Trump in 2016 like Pennsylvania, perhaps the biggest concern among local leaders in Detroit is disenfranchisement of those whose mail-in ballots aren’t received by Election Day. The postal service’s on time delivery rate here is the nation’s worst, having sunk as low as about 50 percent in recent days. A federal judge on Friday ordered the postal service to take extra measures to expedite ballots. On-time delivery is especially critical after a GOP judge recently struck down a rule that would have allowed ballots postmarked by Nov. 2—but not necessarily received by Election Day—to count.
If there’s a red flag for Democrats in the early voting numbers, it’s the lower-than-expected rate of return in Detroit, where officials who predicted 200,000 absentee ballots to be cast have revised that to figure to 165,000.
However, even if the new estimate is accurate, it would still represent a modest increase in Detroit turnout over 2016, which is essential for the Biden campaign in a state that Trump narrowly won. Moreover, Biden appears to be polling particularly well with working class white districts. In MI-03, a west Michigan congressional district that Trump won by over nine points in 2016 and includes Grand Rapids, the state’s second-largest city, internal Democratic polling reportedly put Biden up by two in early October.
Those types of gains with white voters could offset any depression in Detroit turnout. But Graham insisted there was no need for Democrats to panic about the city.
“Biden’s going to win Detroit and Michigan,” he predicted. “Look at all these people. We know what we got to do.”