Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson talks Monday with an election worker at the Northwest Activities Center in northwest Detroit, one of 23 satellite voting offices in the city. (BridgeDetroit photo by Louis Aguilar)

Detroit, a key voting block in a crucial swing state, is in full election mode as the presidential election is less than four weeks away. 

In this polarizing election, that preparation translates into an unprecedented alliance to ensure the voting process goes smoothly in Detroit. The number of Detroiters voting early is surging. Meanwhile President Trump has constantly asserted that absentee voting is rigged — a tactic many view as voting suppression. 

There’s also the usual election trick of criminally-deceptive robocalls that’s sparked at least one state investigation.

“This year, perhaps more than any other, voters will be inundated by efforts to confuse them — about the election process, their rights, and the issues at stake,” reads a statement on the webpage of the state’s election security advisory commission.  “These efforts — be they foreign, domestic, partisan, or simply malicious – are designed to sow mistrust in our elections process and are antithetical to a healthy democracy.”

The Detroit vote is big 

With more than 485,000 registered voters, Detroit has been a reliable path to Democratic victories over the years.

President Barack Obama won Detroit with 97 percent of the vote in 2012 over Republican candidate Mitt Romney. In  2016, Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump with 95 percent of the city vote. 

But the Detroit turnout in the 2016 election was low — 42,598 fewer votes compared to 2012. It helped Trump win Michigan by 10,704 votes — his slimmest margin of victory in any state. 

There’s early signs of larger turnout this election.

In the August primary, about 24 percent of registered Detroit voters cast ballots.That’s a big jump from the primary four years ago, when 13 percent of voters participated. Experts believe the prevalence of mail-in voting helped the high turnout. 

In Detroit, 124,400 voters have requested mail-in ballots for the November election, and 108,065 ballots have been issued, according to the Secretary of State. So far, 12,426 ballots from Detroiters have been received by election officials as of Oct. 5, officials said. 

Benson said “there is no backlog of requests”, which means mail-in ballots are received quickly. The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 30. Officials advise voters to submit their absentee ballot application much earlier to avoid the potential for mailing delays.

Barbara Thomas is among the growing number of Detroiters deciding to vote early for the Nov. 3 election. (BridgeDetroit photo by Louis Aguilar)

Longtime Detroit woes

Complaints about Detroit’s elections have continued for at least 20 years, including issues with faulty voting machines, missing poll books, power outages and other problems that have left some Detroiters frustrated.

In 2016, voting irregularities resulted in a state audit because voting machines in more than one-third of all Detroit precincts registered more votes than what poll workers counted. 

In the August 2020 primary, about 40,000 Detroit voters faced confusion about where they were supposed to vote because their voting location had changed. 

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office drew widespread criticism after 72 percent of the votes in absentee voting precincts didn’t match the number of ballots cast. 

That has sparked a state-led reform and oversight of the City Clerk’s office for the Nov. 3 election. 

New partners

“We consider it a partnership,” said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Monday, describing her office’s role in the Detroit election. “I talk to [the Detroit] City Clerk pretty much every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  Basically, identifying what her needs are.”

Among other things, the Secretary of State office will help recruit and train at least 6,000 election workers and provide other support to the city during the November election.  

The partnership between the Secretary of State’s office and the City Clerk is supported by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and will use resources provided by the Detroit Red Wings, Tigers, Pistons and Lions.

Chris Thomas, the former state Director of Elections under both Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State, will be a senior adviser to the Detroit clerk’s office through Election Day.

On Election Day, the city is counting on up to 1,000 volunteers to help count an anticipated 200,000 mail-in ballots on Election Day. 

“We are basically shutting down city government for two days and putting all the city employees at the clerk’s disposal,” Mayor Mike Duggan said last month.

That’s why training of workers is key, Duggan and others point out. If there are more discrepancies in Detroit’s ballot count, those votes could not be counted in any potential recount. And Trump and his supporters could potentially use it to bolster his claims of fraud. 

Besides city workers, Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and area financial  institutions will also allow workers to help the City Clerk process ballots.

A basement office in the city’s Northwest Activities Center is one 23 satellite voting sites for the Nov. 3 election. (BridgeDetroit photo by Louis Aguilar)

Satellite office and drop-off ballot boxes

One result in the state’s involvement is the opening of  23 satellite voting offices and 30 “ballot drop boxes” throughout the city. It’s an unprecedented move, Benson said. 

It’s in response to the surging requests of absentee ballots. The satellite voting offices are where Detroiters can cast ballots early, pick up a ballot, or register to vote if needed. At each office, there’s an outdoor drop box, which resembles industrial strength mail-boxes, where voters can put in their ballots.  

On Tuesday, the City Council was expected to vote on $462,000 in contracts that would pay for data storage, security cameras, office equipment and other supplies for the satellite offices and drop off ballot boxes, according to the council agenda. The funding comes from “grant money”, according to the council agenda, but doesn’t specify the grant. 

Here’s a link to the locations of all the satellite voting offices and drop boxes. Beyond the satellite offices, there’s another seven spots in the city with drop boxes. 

At the city’s Northwest Activities Center, more than 100 residents visited the office and another 75 used the ballot drop box within the first few hours of the Monday debut, officials said. 

Dwight Hughes, 48, was among those who used the ballot drop box. It was the first time he voted early, he said. He wanted to avoid Election Day lines because of COVID-19 but also is weary of potential disruption by conservatives and Trump.

“To me, what Trump is doing to the post office is about trying to stop the Black vote. I want to vote early to cut down on the chances of any disruption,” Hughes said. 

Annette Ames also voted early for the first time. “Who knows what Trump and his people will try when, like, every day you just can’t believe what he’s saying. I know that some people will try to suppress our vote, I don’t know if they will get away with it. But it just motivates me to vote early because we can’t be intimidated like that.”

Fake robocalls

There’s at least one case of attempted voter suppression of Detroiters that’s sparked a criminal investigation.

Two men are facing felony charges in Michigan after allegedly orchestrating robocalls meant to discourage Detroit voters from voting by mail in the presidential election by making false claims.

On Oct. 1, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed charges against Jack Burkman, 54, from Arlington, Virginia, and Jacob Wohl, 22, from Los Angeles for allegedly attempting to suppress votes in multiple U.S. cities — specifically those with significant minority populations — for the November election.

In Detroit, the calls specifically targeted residents  — nearly 12,000 — with a 313 area code back in August. Officials believe about 85,000 robocalls have been made nationally.

The recorded message falsely claims that if people vote by mail, their personal information will be shared in a public database used by police departments to track down old warrants, as well as by credit card companies seeking to collect outstanding debt. The voice recording also falsely claims the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will use personal information to track people down for mandatory vaccines.

Burkman and Wohl have denied the charges.

Listen to the robocall and view a copy of Burkman and Wohl’s charging documents.

The Attorney General encourages anyone who received this call on or about Aug. 26 and who wishes to file a complaint about it to contact her office by calling 517-335-7650.

Combatting misinformation 

Officials said they are trying to keep a vigilant eye on any potential voter suppression tactics. One is the idea of armed poll watchers turning up at voting locations. Benson said on Monday that may be a rumor. She also conceded that she and the Attorney General were working on guidelines to deal with that possibility. 

“No citizen should be worried to vote on Election Day,” Benson said.

Louis Aguilar is BridgeDetroit’s senior reporter. He covered business and development for the Detroit News, and is a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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