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Will energized local candidates be enough to bring out exhausted voters this fall? 

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Will energized local candidates be enough to bring out exhausted voters this fall? 

May 15, 2024 | 11:11 am ET
By Sarah Leach
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Will energized local candidates be enough to bring out exhausted voters this fall?聽
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Democrat Chris Kleinjans greets supporters during a recent Tulip Time parade. Kleinjans defeated Ottawa Impact Republican incumbent Lucy Ebel in a special May 6, 2024, recall election. | Courtesy photo/Kleinjans campaign

As voters across Michigan see a likely rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, national politics have trickled down to the local level — but which way will voters sway in a historically pivotal swing state?

Two recent local-level recall elections may be the bellwether on what’s in store for the Aug. 6 primary and the Nov. 5 general election.

In Delta County, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, three county commissioners were recalled on the five-member board on May 6 by wide margins. 

Myra Croasdell, Kelli van Ginhoven and Matthew Jensen defeated Commissioners Robert Barron, David Moyle and Robert Petersen by more than 40-point margins, respectively. The former incumbents abruptly fired county administrator Emily DeSalvo in February 2023 after she openly criticized the board for “unethical and disrespectful behavior” after the elimination of the Ethics Committee. 

“I will not be silent if I witness unethical behavior, so stop behaving in a manner which disrespects the office you hold in the community that you serve,” DeSalvo said at the board’s Feb. 7, 2023, meeting

She was fired shortly after her comments in that meeting.

That prompted the formation of the Delta County Citizens for Ethical Leadership, which became the driving force behind the recall efforts, creating the petitions and gathering the signatures needed to make the election happen.

Will energized local candidates be enough to bring out exhausted voters this fall?聽
Ottawa County Commissioner was defeated in a recall election this month | Courtesy photo

A similar storyline in West Michigan’s Ottawa County unfolded May 6 when a County Commissioner Lucy Ebel, a member of far-right fundamentalist group Ottawa Impact, was recalled, losing to Democrat Chris Kleinjans by a 20-point margin.

Since taking office in January 2023, Ottawa Impact commissioners have pushed through a series of controversial decisions, resulting in five lawsuits over 14 months against the county. The decisions included closing the county’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department, changing the county’s motto, hiring a far-right legal firm as corporation counsel and firing administrator John Shay and replacing him with Republican former congressional candidate John Gibbs.

The OI majority on the board also attempted to demote and then fire the county health officer, who sued in February 2023 kicking off a yearlong legal saga that ended earlier this year with the officer remaining in her role.

The other lawsuits, that remain ongoing, have alleged religious discrimination over county meeting invocations, age discrimination over a controversial executive aide hire, allegations of Open Meetings Act violations and a wrongful termination from Gibbs, who was fired Feb. 29.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, investigated the board’s Jan. 3, 2023, meeting for Open Meetings Act violation allegations. Six weeks later, she said although the incoming OI commissioners didn’t violate the OMA when they met and made decisions prior to being sworn into office, they certainly “violated the spirit” of the statute.

Elections officials say the recall elections are evidence of an engaged electorate. 

“What Ottawa and Delta counties tell me is that we are a far more moderate electorate than ever before,” said Barb Byrum, Ingham County clerk and former Democratic state representative. 

She said, in many ways, the early election results are the byproduct of the tea party that sprang up after President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and Trump’s influences on politics.

“In 2010, 2016, we saw the right-wing uprising, and now we’re really seeing an engaged moderate electorate, exercising the right to vote. I think we’re seeing the pendulum swing back,” she said. “Voters are currently being faced with the reality of another Trump presidency and after the Dobbs decision [overturning Roe v. Wade] and losing rights, voters seem to have woken up.

“They were a really sleepy, moderate electorate. They’ve gotten complacent after electing President Barack Obama, and they have woken up again, and they are informed, and they are exercising their rights to vote.”

Byrum pointed at several reforms approved in recent years that increased access to voting. 

Proposal 3 of 2018, which won 67% approval from voters, allows for no-reason absentee voting in Michigan and restored straight-party voting on ballots, a choice the previously GOP-controlled legislature took away. Proposal 2 of 2022 allows for early in-person voting and passed with 60% support.

“Voters had been wanting and election officials had been asking for reforms, and the voters took it upon themselves to open up the ballot box and increase access to exercising one’s right to vote,” Byrum said. “And now it’s easier to exercise your right to vote in Michigan than ever before, with maintaining that safety and security of the vote.”

More than 1.8 million Michiganders voted in the 2024 Democratic and Republican primary, making up around 22% of registered voters statewide. A significant portion of the vote seemed to come from early voting in the state, as the Secretary of State announced ahead of the Feb. 27 primary that more than 1 million Michigan voters had already cast their ballots.

Byrum said she’s not hung up on the low percentage turnouts, because overall voter registration and turnout numbers are increasing.

“Each year, turnout has been higher in terms of actual votes cast,” she said. “Now, the percentage may not be a tie now that we have pre registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, so the denominator’s getting bigger, but overall votes cast has been increasing.”

With the May election results, however, came more claims that election results can’t be trusted.

Despite Ottawa Impact supporters taking to social media claiming election interference and fraud helped Kleinjans win, no formal complaints have been brought to his office’s attention, said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck, a Republican.

“We do all these checks and balances to ensure the accuracy and integrity of an election, but then we also give our voters the benefit of the doubt, and no one has brought a single claim to us of any sort of wrongdoing or illegal activity in the election process,” Roebuck said.

Will energized local candidates be enough to bring out exhausted voters this fall?聽
Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck | Courtesy photo

Roebuck said it’s unfortunate that calls of election interference are on the rise as checks and balances are better than ever.

“I think what truly bothers me is when my voters essentially are accused of wrongdoing baselessly by individuals with no data or no set of facts to back that up,” he said. “I actually get pretty protective of that.”

Byrum agreed, saying elections staff in all areas of the state are ensuring fair and accurate processes.

“What it does is erode trust in the process, it attacks our democracy and it is not helpful — at all,” she said of the claims of fraud. “I remember a time where there was a peaceful transition of power. I remember the losing candidate would call the winning candidate and concede, I remember a time of civility, and great competition. That’s changed now. And all we can do is keep running safe and secure elections, and we will regain the public’s trust.”

Luckily, the state’s electorate is “more informed than ever before,” she said.

“Voters now have more time to vote with absentee ballots. And they’re not making a one-day decision. They’re taking their time. They’re doing the research, and they’re paying attention to what their elected officials are doing or not doing.”