Detroit voters at Rouge Park’s voting center, one of 23 throughout the city for the November election. (BridgeDetroit photo by Ralph Jones)

As many as 70,000 ballot applications for the November election sat in the Detroit city clerk’s office for three weeks in September because it failed to send out absentee ballots on-time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan alleged in a lawsuit filed this month.

Now, under a new agreement, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey has pledged to process all applications within 24 hours of receipt. 

“What we’ve been doing as of late is whenever a request comes in, we are sending that ballot out overnight,” Winfrey said at a news conference Thursday. “In addition to that, we also will hand-deliver.”

According to the Michigan Legislature, a City Clerk has to mail or personally deliver absentee ballots to voters immediately. The Michigan Secretary of State directs local clerks to issue absentee ballots within 24 hours of receipt of an absent voter application. 

But, according to the ACLU, as of Sept. 23, the clerk’s office was in possession of 200,000 absentee ballot applications, but data from the Secretary of State’s office showed that, as of Oct. 12, the office had issued only 132,879 ballots.

Marianne Yared McGuire, 79, a Detroit voter, requested an absentee ballot in early October. 

McGuire says she submitted absentee ballot applications in previous elections and typically received a response within two to three days. This time she realized it had been more than a week and had not heard from the city clerk’s office.

“I panicked,” said McGuire who did not want to vote in-person at the polls on Nov. 3 because she’s afraid of contracting COVID-19 or encountering violence or intimidation at the polls. 

McGuire decided to vote early instead at Balduck Park, one of the city’s 23 satellite voting locations. This week, however, her absentee ballot was overnighted to her in the mail. 

“I figured I had fallen through the cracks but it cost them $26.35 to send the ballot. You just wonder how many others fell through the cracks too.”

Dan Korobkin, legal director at the ACLU of Michigan, said the goal of the lawsuit was to get people like McGuire ballots before Election Day.

“The purpose of the lawsuit and the agreement was to make sure the backlog would be cleared within 24 hours. That was on October 21,” he said. “We are now receiving daily reports, as required by the agreement, to document that they are processing ballot applications.”

As part of the lawsuit settlement, the clerk’s office will also be extending the hours of its voter hotline to 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day, to ensure a smooth voting process. The office said it is prepared to respond to all voters’ telephone messages within 24 hours.   

Voters can check the status of their application online and if the requested ballot has not yet been sent, the voter can notify the clerk by calling 313-876-0190 or the ACLUat 866-OUR-VOTE.  

The city clerk must receive a request for an absent voter ballot online or by mail no later than 5 p.m. Friday. Ballots must be received by the voter’s city clerk by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted. 

Voters who haven’t received their ballot can call the clerk’s office to find out the status of their ballot or go to their clerk’s office to request and submit a ballot in person to vote absentee until Monday. 

Daniel Baxter, of the Detroit City Clerk’s office, says voting at the polls on Nov. 3 is an option. 

“If they miss those opportunities, then they certainly should go to the precinct and vote on Election Day,” said Baxter. 

As of Oct. 28, more than 173,000 absentee ballots have been issued in Detroit and 123,783 have been returned. 

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

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