Detroit voters cast absentee ballots from a satellite voting center at Butzel Family Recreation Center on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Detroit voters are more motivated to participate in elections if a candidate on the ballot supports reparations for Black Americans, according to new research from the University of Michigan. 

Researchers at the Center for Racial Justice at U-M found reparations have a strong chance to sway Detroiters who are undecided or unlikely to vote, particularly young Black residents. The survey, which collected responses from 2,339 Detroiters between June and August, explores how policy stances impact voting behavior just before the Nov. 8 election, where fewer Detroit residents are projected to cast a ballot compared to the last midterm election in 2018. 


“When we find that a candidate’s support for reparations will make people more likely to turn out and vote, we think that that illustrates how voting can help achieve racial justice,” said Jasmine Simington, a research assistant at the Center for Racial Justice who co-authored the November brief released this week. 

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey on Thursday estimated 28% to 33% of registered voters will cast a ballot in next week’s election, a decline from 41% in the last midterm election. Winfrey said the figure is disappointing. Still, Detroit’s true turnout figure won’t be known until all the votes are counted.

Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black caucus said the candidates’ policies and politics are “trying to play it safe to the white working class” and when that’s the emphasis, he said, “you leave out (Black) voters who are going to be loyal to the process.”

“Reparations is a good example of righting the wrong, and if the political system is behind it, that gives people faith,” Williams added. “When I ran the reparations campaign (for Detroit), white folks were voting for it too in Detroit. How do we motivate people to get to the polls? If people see poverty and crime, it’s things that are directly a derivative of people not having (economic opportunities). That’s why you’ve had these problems and lack of motivation.”

Thirty-seven percent of Detroiters who said they won’t vote in the upcoming election reported that a candidate’s support for reparations changed their mind, according to the survey.

The survey found a majority of Detroiters (63%) support reparations, defined as “some form of payment to Black Americans to counter the impact of slavery and discriminatory policies.” It didn’t ask Detroiters about who should be eligible or what form the payment should come in. Last year, 80% of voters supported a ballot proposal to create a reparations commission to study those questions. Applications to serve on a task force being organized by City Council were received this fall.

“Regardless of the definition, we see a majority of Detroiters support some form of policy directed at reparations,” said Erykah Benson, a U-M research assistant who co-authored the brief. 

Though the endorsement of reparations from survey participants was widespread, researchers found signs of a generational divide. 

Young Detroiters were more likely to say a candidate’s support for a reparations policy would convince them to vote. Just under half (49%) of the Detroiters between the ages of 18 and 34 who participated in the survey said they would be more motivated to cast a ballot if a candidate spoke in support of reparations. Among Black Detroiters in that same age range, 59% said a candidate who supports reparations is more likely to get their vote. 

The impact was lessened for older Detroiters. Just over a third of Detroiters between the ages of 55 and 64 said a candidate’s support for reparations would make them more likely to vote. Sixty percent of Black voters over 55 said reparations wouldn’t have an effect on their support for a particular candidate. 

“It illustrates some sort of generational views that might be occurring among young Black people that should be explored further,” Benson said. “That reparations policy would actually motivate younger Detroiters has crucial implications for voter engagement strategies on getting younger people to turn out to vote.”

Researchers also found that non-Black Detroiters could be motivated by reparations policy, though to a lesser extent. The survey found 35% of Latino residents and 26% of white Detroiters would be more likely to head to the polls if a candidate on the ballot supported reparations. However, 13% percent of white voters in Detroit also said they would be less likely to vote in that situation. 

Black men (51%) were more likely than Black women (42%) to say a candidate’s support for reparations would make them more likely to vote. The gender dynamic flipped in other racial groups, particularly for Latina women, who were far more likely to vote than their male counterparts –  56% to 19%. 

“One thing I feel is a common misconception is that reparations for Black Americans is something that’s specifically of concern only to Black Americans, and while we do find that (they) are more likely than any other ethno-racial group to support reparations, we do see high support across the board among other among non-Black ethno-racial groups,” Benson said. 

The brief did not list specific candidates who support reparations policies. However, researchers did say that they considered Detroit’s legacy of pushing for reparations at the federal level while they wrote the brief. 

A reparations bill in the U.S. House passed out of committee in April 2021 for the first time since the late Detroit Congressman John Conyers Jr. first introduced it 32 years ago. The 2021 bill has not received a vote.

Conyers was a staunch advocate for reparations during his 52 years in Congress. He routinely introduced legislation to create a commission to study reparations, though it never was successful. 

State Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, said he will support efforts at the federal level to study reparations proposals if elected to Congress on Nov. 8. His victory would end a 70-year streak of Black politicians representing Detroit in Congress, but Thanedar said he’s ready to continue Conyers’ legacy on reparations.

Williams said there is really no Black political leader in Michigan who’s championing reparations. 

Another U-M brief, based on responses from the same survey group, explored the policy priorities of Detroit voters. It found city voters put the highest priority on quality K-12 schools, inflation, affordable health care, affordable housing and crime. Racial inequality was another top issue for Detroit voters, with 70% of the survey participants saying it’s a high priority. 

“I get (the focus) on the right to choose and democracy, but when are Black people going to get access to democracy?” Williams said. “Democracy is access to banking, health care, equal access to education. To me it’s not an either or. We need to be able to vote, but we also need access to resources.” 

Detroiters, the survey found, are generally concerned about inflation and the costs of goods and services. Seniors and non college educated residents are the most likely to emphasize inflation as a high policy priority.

Black Detroiters were most likely to say the quality of schools should be a priority for elected officials (81%). 

The survey also found Black Detroiters are twice as likely (60%) as white residents (29%) and 1.5 times as likely as Latino residents (41%) to say COVID-19 rates should be a high priority for elected officials.

Latino residents were twice as likely (61%) to name immigration as a top issue compared to Black and white Detroiters (33% and 31%, respectively).

The largest gender gap in issue priorities is on gun ownership and use. Women who responded to the survey are far more likely to view gun policies as a high priority for elected officials than men (68% to 50%).

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  1. Sad isn’t it? The Republicans are doing everything they can to disenfranchise Detroit voters, while the Detroiters themselves are already hard at it.

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