In Michigan, primary choices are determined by concerns

Gordon Novak and Chrissi Novak stand outside a polling station for the Michigan state primary at the Ferndale Area District Library in Ferndale, Michigan on Aug. 2, 2022. (Cydni Elledge/The New York Times)

Gordon Novak and Chrissi Novak stand outside a polling station for the Michigan state primary at the Ferndale Area District Library in Ferndale, Michigan on Aug. 2, 2022. (Cydni Elledge/The New York Times)

HAZEL PARK, Michigan — Ashley Polansky, a 34-year-old retail executive, rushed into a polling station in a tiny church on Tuesday morning to vote with one issue on top of her mind.

“I’m three months pregnant,” she said, describing her worst fears about giving birth without the right to an abortion. “If something goes wrong, the doctors can just let me die.”

For Polansky, the re-election of Governor Gretchen Whitmer — a Democrat who has campaigned heavily to defend Michigan’s precarious right to abortion — feels like a literal matter of life or death for her and other women. They fear that if abortion is banned in the state, complications from pregnancy would leave their own health vulnerable.

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As Election Day unfolded, the voters of Hazel Park in Oakland County, a Democratic-oriented suburb of Detroit, formulated their motivations in existential terms.

Life in Michigan, Democrats and Republicans alike said, is burdened with worries. In Hazel Park, a well-maintained town of small bungalows lined with chain link fences, the concerns are many: preserving democratic elections, preserving autonomy over their own bodies and health, providing food for their families.

For many voting Republicans, economic issues dominate.

“I wish things would get better,” says Bruce Roach, 44, who works in construction for a cable company. “We have to take out the party in power.”

Roach, like many people in the politically diverse suburbs of Detroit, has switched back and forth between party affiliations. He voted for former President Barack Obama twice and then in 2016 and 2020.

He appreciated the stimulus checks he received under President Joe Biden, he said, but he has struggled immensely to make ends meet as inflation has pushed up the cost of everything. Gasoline prices are too high to drive his kids to their grandparents in Tennessee. In the grocery store, Roach used to be able to afford the premium brand Boar’s Head, but now he feeds his family prepackaged meats he calls “nitrate-filled processed yuck.”

Many people have seen their investments fall into a crater this year as the stock market plummeted, a development they blame on Biden.

“I’ve lost $72,000 since Joe Biden became president,” said Robert Thomas, a 62-year-old retired train driver, who arrived at a polling station on his bike, a practice he relies on to save money.

Elizabeth Van Stee, 35, a creative director, said she voted Democrat and cited abortion rights as a primary motivator. Although she has not suffered economically – she has a good job, earns decent money and has had a house in the city since 2019 – she knows that her situation is not the norm.

“Life is hard for many people in this area,” says Van Stee. “My neighbors raise economic issues all the time. It’s a lot like, ‘Can you believe how much grains cost?’”

On Tuesday afternoon, voters flocked from a modern public library across from a Mexican restaurant in the nearby suburb of Ferndale.

Stephanie Williams, 52, a publishing house, said she didn’t normally vote in the primaries, but this time she was determined to vote because so much was at stake.

“Abortion rights, human rights, protection of marriage equality,” she said. “I feel like it’s all personal issues.”

Detroit voters who arrived at the polls on polling day said they were focused on the fundamentals: protecting democracy and exercising a right to vote they haven’t always had.

“I only think of those who sacrificed themselves to vote,” said John Williams, 70, as he stood in front of Bagley Elementary School on Detroit’s northwest side.

Williams, who is retired from law enforcement, said that for him, knowing of Republican efforts to tighten access to the ballot answered the question of whether he would bother voting in a primary.

“It’s always been a constant and emphatic ‘yes’ over the past few years,” he said, “with the direction I see America going.”

If the problems in this election seem insurmountable, the pandemic may still be to blame, said Gordon Novak, 61, a retired entrepreneur living in Ferndale.

“We are still adjusting after the pandemic,” Novak said. “The shortages of stuff, supply chains that are supported. Everything doesn’t feel right.”

Carolyn Gentry, 52 and a Democrat, said there was a time when she could talk about the issues with her Republican friends in Michigan, but in the current political mood in the state, and with so many Republicans believing the 2020 election was fraudulent , that no longer feels possible.

“I had tons of discussions, thinking we could come to a reasonable truth,” she said. “There is no more understanding of what truth is.”

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