The 46th president of the United States and the first Black and Indian woman vice president were sworn into office Wednesday. After an unprecedented election the Democrats now control the House, Senate and Executive Office. However, the 78 days between Election Day and the inauguration were a battleground for vote certification, followed by insurrection, after cities like Detroit, with majority Black populations, voted for Biden amid a global pandemic.
Republican challengers and activists traveled to Detroit on Nov. 4 chanting “stop the vote” at the TCF Center as early precinct counts showed Biden in the lead. The mob was stopped at the door by a woman, Sommer Woods, though they continued to bang on the windows and yell outside the doors in an effort to stop an accurate count. Woods was hired to assist Daniel Baxter, a consultant to the city’s Department of Elections and longtime elections expert in the city.
In the days that followed, Detroiters and the city’s elections office were put under a microscope of scrutiny. White Republicans nationwide made unscrupulous and unsubstantiated claims of fraud, alleging Black poll workers in Detroit and the city’s Black elections administration had helped Biden cheat his way to victory.
However, City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Baxter maintain that the more than 250,000 Detroit votes were accurate. Throughout November and December lawsuits with false claims were filed in an attempt to suppress the Detroit vote and keep Michigan’s votes from being certified.
As the world welcomed the new administration, BridgeDetroit sat down with Winfrey and Baxter to understand how Detroiters voted and how ballots were counted.
Winfrey, the headstrong clerk who says her commitment to civil service prepared her for this moment, secured Detroiters access to voting by implementing mail-in voting in the state’s largest municipality and recruiting, training 10,000 election workers. She hired Baxter after the August primary, who has worked with the Department of Elections since 1985. His extensive knowledge on election law and process guaranteed an accurate count and ensured Detroit voters were heard and protected. According to Baxter, who witnessed a record Detroit turnout during Obama’s 2008 campaign and had the foresight to plan logistics for 2020, Detroiters are still living the words preached and taught by Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, for the right to vote in America.
- City Clerk Janice Winfrey: In Detroit ‘we follow election law to a T’
- Michigan’s former elections director on ‘the race factor’ in Detroit
- Inside Detroit’s election: Black women’s stories of the count and the mayhem
- GOP canvassers tried to suppress the vote. Detroit, Wayne County fought back.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
BridgeDetroit: Has your sense of civic duty informed your work in elections?
Janice Winfrey: Absolutely. It definitely plays a part in the decisions that I make as a clerk. When I hear the stories about making the voting process harder, not easier, it weighs on me heavily. Because here in the city of Detroit, my main thing is always to make the voting process easy and make it accessible.
We were the first in the state to open up vote centers. Since 2012, we’ve had satellite voting, which means that 30 days prior to every election, an individual can go to a satellite vote center, any one they choose. We have one in every council member’s district.
It’s also important to me that we opened up the process, and [expanded the ability to] work the precincts. We’re gonna pay you to work with us on Election Day. We recruited from the high schools because we realized that if we get them involved in the process before they are even eligible to vote, and we give them an opportunity to earn money, typically they’ll become voters. And then we pushed hard for no-reason absentee.
Daniel Baxter: I want to embellish on the satellite voting. As the clerk alluded, no jurisdiction in the entire state of Michigan had ever done that until we started it. The only reason why we have no-reason absentee voting is because of satellite voting.
You have to remember that in 2008, we had this explosive turnout prior to Election Day. Two Saturdays before the election, I came into the department. There was this line of people that started at the front of the building all the way to Second Street and winding down to Milwaukee and back to Third Street. That’s three blocks.
They were here to vote by absentee in advance, because for the first time, there was a Black guy on the ballot by the name of Barack Obama that people were inspired to vote for.
We had the front counter, the garage, the second floor, the third floor, and the fourth floor, packed with people every day, all the way up until the Monday before the election. We had anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 people voting by absentee every day.
In 2012, those numbers doubled. So the pressure was on the state as well as the Legislature. So Proposition 3, in 2018, was presented to the voters and the voters did it. They eliminated [the need for] reasons in absentee voting.
And then came the pandemic. Like the clerk said, there was no way that you could get around it and as you can see, nationally, those numbers for early voting, absentee voting, they just went through the ceiling, particularly in Democratic communities.
Winfrey: During the early part of the pandemic, [Baxter] wasn’t with us. So I didn’t have him to lean on and stop me. He’s the type of person that will say ‘No you can’t do that, we’ll go to jail.’ But at that point I didn’t have him but wanted to serve.
I wanted everybody to be able to get their ballot. [I wanted to] send ballot applications out. I called the governor, who was on the fence, the Secretary of State, who’s new.
I’m the largest municipality. If I was going to do this thing I had to do it. So I did it first. I sent [absentee ballot applications] out. I prayed about it. The [state] followed.
Baxter: We’ve been forward-thinking. I’ve worked a couple of years in Montgomery, Alabama, where the civil rights movement began.
Many of the initiatives that the clerk had here in Detroit, I took to Montgomery, to help empower those folks down there. It was well received.
Our history gives us a passion, perhaps, unlike any other jurisdiction within the state of Michigan, we’re passionate about empowering people with the right to vote. We make sure at the top of every year, to figure out what we need to do in order to make this election even more impactful than the previous election.
BridgeDetroit: What was it like to manage an election in a pandemic?
Winfrey: We needed someone to manage absentee voting because we knew we were going to have more absentee voters than any others because it’s a pandemic. Who wants to go to the precincts? At that time, I considered not even opening up all of my precincts. So I knew I needed someone to manage TCF Center.
Absentee voting is very much wrapped in election law. It was imperative that we had someone who was very familiar with election law and Daniel is. You have to send out the request at a certain time and when those requests come in they have to be matched with a signature. …We knew that we were going to count well over 100,000 ballots. I needed him to come in and oversee that process so that it was done in the spirit of excellence.
Baxter: As you know, the primary didn’t go so well. Ninety percent of those people who worked in the primary election didn’t work for the general election. [Janice] created team leads, and changed out all of the supervision and she called upon [nine historically Black fraternities and sororities]. We knew we were going to count between 150,000 to 200,000 ballots and she wanted to implement shifts. I’ve had experience with shifts before and it was never successful. One of the other changes was we could begin tabulating ballots at 7 o’clock. In the primary, they didn’t start until 11 o’clock. That’s because they couldn’t transition the poll workers into their seating in time… We had to hire 2,000 poll workers, and 1,800 of them had never done this job before in their life.
Baxter: Number one, we had to do COVID testing. Number two, we had to hire all these people and we had to train them. I used to train at Wayne County Community College, but the clerk said ‘Nope, I want you to train them on site, where they will be seated. And I want you to do a hands-on training, step by step so that they’ll understand how to process an absentee ballot, how to deal with the problems, how to open process and close.
Every day, we trained and we had two classes per day. We trained 200 to 300 people each day. This didn’t just consist of training people that would process the ballot, we had to train the tabulators, people who would physically count the ballots, and the people who would do the adjudication process. We had to train the folks who would be responsible for transitioning the poll workers from the garage to their particular tables. I had 60 days to get all of that done. And we hit the ground running.
[This was] a communal event. We had city and county departments who put their hands to the plow. Private industries, churches; we had everybody. Everybody wanted to participate and [we had help.]
The law changed in the middle of it. …We were allowed to process the Monday before the election. So then we had to regroup and in the midst of training to train those folks who would come in that Monday, so that they would know how to process those ballots. It worked, but it was tough. I’ve done some great elections. I was here with Barack Obama. I was here in both 2008 and 2012. We were here when we implemented the whole write-in piece for Mike Duggan. That was exciting and exhilarating. Back in 2002, I was here when then-Secretary of State Candice Miller stood in front of Cobo Hall and said they were going to put the department in receivership if we didn’t get an absentee voting process together.
I’ve had the opportunity to have my hands in on some great and exciting things. But nothing, nothing compares to what we just went through in 2020. It was the most invigorating, all-engaging election that I’ve ever participated in.
BridgeDetroit: You mentioned that you had never seen shifts necessarily work in the past. Why do you think they worked this time?
Winfrey: Because of the people that we hired. They were professional, they were eager to do it, and they weren’t just doing this for the money. They felt like it was a civic responsibility. These poll workers that we engaged for this particular election, they felt they had a sense of civic responsibility and ownership.
Baxter: So many of those great people came to me during the process and said, ‘You know, when I first started it was about the money. But coming down here and seeing this and being a part of it. Oh man, I realized now that this is more about our right to vote, the city of Detroit and our life and livelihoods that I don’t care how much you would pay me in the future. I’m always with you.’
I’ve run into people every day that worked at TCF and say ‘Hey Baxter, I worked at TCF and I had never done this before but I was so excited. I went to the bathroom and I cried. And I just thank God for being a part of this, because I never knew that the election process was so detailed, and meticulous.’
It was a transformational moment.
We saw the worst of the worst and the best of the best. There’s a lot of positives that come out of this. But I believe that what you’ll see in the future is a different body politic and an electorate, because of what we had to witness in 2020. I believe that more Detroiters will be engaged, because they really had an opportunity, a bird’s-eye view, and an opportunity to see the value of their vote.
BridgeDetroit: Can you describe what it was like when challengers yelled to stop the count. How did you manage all of these people, the tempers and the chaos?
Baxter: It’s not the first time that I saw that type of partisan politics. It reared its ugly head in 2004 during the [John Kerry vs. George Bush] presidential election. The Republicans came to the central counting board, and basically did the exact same thing. Tried to slow down the count, try to challenge every ballot.
It got so hostile in 2004. It was probably about upwards of 100 Republican challengers. It wasn’t just Republican challengers, I put the Democratic challengers out, I put all of them out, because they were impeding the process.
In 2020, we also implemented for the first time these big monitors, they were like 32-inch monitors, so that the challengers would have an opportunity to see all of the activities that occurred during the processing of absentee ballots.
BridgeDetroit: Daniel, you’ve worked on Detroit elections for 30 years. As you’ve said, we’re quick to point out the challenges. But what are the opportunities that you see in Detroit elections?
Baxter: Last year was the Census, which means new legislative boundary lines will be the result. By 2022, for the gubernatorial election, all of our representative boundaries will change. Our state Legislature, our community college districts, state senate, as well as congressional districts, all of the district boundary lines will change.
We have an opportunity to cut back on some of our polling places. Everybody’s anticipating Detroit to lose some of its population and that’ll save us some dollars. But at the same time, it’ll allow us to be more effective and efficient, in the sense that because of no-reason absentee voting, what you will see in the future, is absentee voting will not take a back seat to precinct voting.
Historically, precinct voting represented two-thirds of the vote that came in on Election Day, now absentees representing two-thirds, particularly with the state primary and the general election, it’s flip-flopped.
It gives us an opportunity to be more engaged with the voter. …Now [the voter] has the opportunity to vote at their convenience — at home, or on any given day.
That’s probably the greatest opportunity right there. The change in the Census boundaries, as well as the increase in absentee voting, which will produce better election turnout numbers.
BridgeDetroit: There have been a lot of digs at Detroit’s administration, within the election process, specifically from Republicans and even across the nation. They talk about corruption or unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Did either of you think this would lead to the vote not being certified?
Winfrey: Not when they did their due diligence, not when it went to the courts, not when they looked into it and did audits to determine if any fraudulent activity took place. Do people make mistakes? Yes. And that’s because it’s so hands-on. It’s so human oriented. It takes a lot of people and people make mistakes. But fraud? No, never.
It’s just an attempt at voter suppression. Because when people don’t trust the process, they won’t participate in the process.
Baxter: What you have is a confused public who may believe that you can do things that are not within your right to do based upon state, local, and federal laws.
…I never realized that we were going to have what we had two Wednesdays ago. I didn’t think [the Insurrection] was going to happen, but I knew that you were going to have these conversations.
Ultimately, as stated by the U.S. Attorney General, there is no evidence of widespread fraud that occurred in this election. In fact, they said this was the best administered election in the history of our country.
BridgeDetroit: What do you think are Detroiters responsibilities when it comes to elections and what do you want them to understand about this past election?
Baxter: When you look at 2020, the pandemic shut down every system that we have in place in our country. When you look at George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, and everything that occurred, it all came to a head right there on Nov. 3. All of that is inextricably connected to the ballot box. That’s what Frederick Douglass was trying to tell us, that’s what Martin Luther King was trying to tell us, and that’s what Malcolm X was trying to tell us.