Less than 15 percent of registered voters in Detroit participated in the Aug. 3 primary election. Activists say this is a problem for the city, while the City Clerk defends her handling of the election.

Most Detroiters didn’t vote in Tuesday’s primary because of apathy, ineffective leadership, underfunded elections and weakened grassroots networks, election officials and political observers say about the Aug. 3 turnout. 

Less than 15 percent of registered voters in the city — or about 71,375 Detroiters— voted in Tuesday’s primary, meaning the leanings of most Detroiters are unknown, observers say. 

Brandon Jessup of Michigan Forward said most candidates don’t canvas city neighborhoods or help residents understand how government “impacts people.”  Therefore, candidates aren’t connecting with voters. 

“It goes back to the ability of candidates to mobilize their community,” Jessup said. “Authenticity is something Detroiters are very well aware of.”

Jessup also said he didn’t hear enough from candidates about the city’s high cost of living or the pandemic’s economic fallout, among other concerns. 

“The pandemic has gotten rid of a lot of wealth in our community, and a lot of people are missing” from the conversation, said Jessup.

Tanya Stephens, an art curator who has worked on campaigns, said Detroiters are still dealing with flood damage, the economic impact of the pandemic and uninspiring political choices. She also said Detroit’s politicians have been ineffective. 

“Detroiters are burned out, and we are tired of politicians who don’t change the problems we see in our neighborhoods,” Stephens said. 

Stephens believes a lack of trust is an issue with Detroit voters, citing criminal records of some candidates and two cases of corruption on City Council.  

“When you add that to everything Detroiters have been through in the past 50 years, you’ll see a lot of people dealing with PTSD,” she said. 

Jessup said voters know those with criminal records  “don’t represent the populace.”

Jessup also spoke to how labor organizations that have traditionally played a strong funding and organizational role in Detroit elections are weakened by changes in the economy. 

“Labor participation is a reflection of our economy and all we sell are services,” said Jessup, who also said younger generations haven’t had the same access to union jobs as older people. 

Ken Whittaker is the executive director of Michigan United, a nonprofit that works with labor, business, social service and civil rights members across the state. Whittaker, who is an organizer, said low voter turnout means we don’t know how Detroiters stand on issues. 

“Municipal elections are what’s responsible for the day-to-day living of Detroiters, and if an eighth of Detroirters are making decisions for the rest of us, that can’t possibly represent what everyone wants,” Whittaker said. 

Whittaker also believes getting people to the polls shouldn’t fall squarely on activists and organizers. 

“The role of the city clerk’s office includes promoting democracy and promoting access to the ballot,” Whittaker said.

City Clerk Janice Winfrey told BridgeDetroit that the ballot was “short” and didn’t give voters a lot of options. Winfrey said the Department of Elections planned for a turnout of 13 to 18 percent. 

“We had three council districts on the ballot out of seven, we had no police commissioners, which was expected to be on the ballot, and then you have the mayor’s race and my race,” Winfrey said.

Winfrey says the city received 48,000 absentee ballots with an additional 23,000 Detroiters voting in person Tuesday. 

The unofficial results to each race are not expected to change when the votes are certified . 

Whittaker and Jessup said the reduced number of absentee ballot drop boxes also impacted city turnout. In November, there were 32 ballot drop boxes throughout the city; in this election, there were only 19. 

Reducing the number of drop boxes “dismantled the mechanics of democracy,” according to Jessup. 

Whittaker said, in Detroit, “year-round civic education and inspiration is necessary.”

“Detroiters need to understand the issues that they’re plagued by in their daily lives,” he said. “We need to be able to connect those issues to which elected office is directly related to them, and then act upon it.”

Winfrey, however, defended her decision.  

“For each drop box, there is someone who monitors it on camera 24/7. So, take whatever that person’s salary is with the police department and add in that someone has to physically be present at each satellite office,” Winfrey said. “It’s not fiscally responsible to pay for those things during a primary where most people choose not to vote.”

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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