How Detroit is getting out the vote — one neighborhood at a time

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As cars line up to get free food, a volunteer approaches drivers to see if they are registered to vote.

In front of the Mack Alive Resource Center in Detroit’s Southeast End Village neighborhood, food-filled bags sit piled on the sidewalk. Since early that morning, more than a dozen volunteers have been unloading and sorting fresh corn, potatoes, cereal, canned food — all delivered from Gleaners Community Food Bank. It’s a big production.

As cars line up to get provisions, a mask-clad volunteer named Victoria (who declined to give her last name) walks up to the first car. “We were wondering, are you registered to vote for this election?” she asks.

Michigan is the center of the U.S auto industry and manufacturing, a union stronghold, and a battleground state that is key to reaching the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency. 

Volunteers from Mack Alive Community Center unload boxes of food donated by Gleaners. (All photos by Cybelle Codish)

Detroit is the largest Black city in the United States and a stalwart in Democratic politics. Galvanizing the electorate in this predominantly Black and predominantly Democratic city could tip Michigan to Biden. 

For six consecutive presidential elections starting in 1992, a Democratic candidate has won Michigan. That changed in 2016 when Donald Trump won the state with just over 10,000 votes. Some of the reasons were low voter turnout, and the lack of a grassroots ground game by the Clinton campaign to reach voters. 

At this point in a typical presidential campaign, Detroit would see rallies to generate excitement, and candidates would make regular visits to churches and make appearances at union halls. 

But this is 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has upended traditional “get out the vote” efforts, and party campaigns are notably absent. With few options, leaders from block clubs and community centers deep in Detroit’s neighborhoods use everything at their disposal to mobilize voters and get them to the polls on Election Day. 

Artina Hardman, center, executive director of Mack Alive Community Center, organizes food distribution every third Saturday of the month. (Photos by Cybelle Codish)

As the pandemic spiked, so did unemployment. At Mack Alive, a community development nonprofit on the east side, executive director Artina Hardman has seen an increase in the number of residents coming to the center for help. On the third Saturday of each month, an average of 200 cars line up in front of Mack Alive to get food boxes, often with two people per car — a pre-pandemic voter outreach event with the same volume would be considered impactful. 

“This time last year, we might get 100 cars,” Hardman says. “We’re seeing more people, more people with children, more families and more walk-ups, people with no transportation.” 

After months of organizing food distribution, Hardman recognized that if members of the community were coming by in such large numbers to get food, this was also an opportunity to register them to vote. Where else would she reach such large numbers of people in such a short period?

“I tell people, ’If you don’t vote, you can’t complain’,” says Artina Hardman. (Photos by Cybelle Codish)

“We have to vote. We must vote,” Hardman told me. “I tell people, ’If you don’t vote, you can’t complain’.”

Joseph Montgomery, the resident approached by the volunteer at Mack Alive, says he has already mailed in his ballot. But Victoria persists.

“Do you know anyone who hasn’t voted?” she asks. 

Montgomery happens to know someone who needs to register, so Victoria gives him a registration form and moves on to the next car.

Donald Green, professor of political science at Columbia University and author of the book “Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout,” says direct voter outreach is what gets people to the polls. He says a genuine personal invitation mobilizes people.

“The most effective [get out the vote] tactics in 20-plus years of scientific experiments are those that involve some kind of personal appeal, some kind of authentic, heartfelt appeal,” Green says. “To the extent that people are walking around encouraging others to vote, whether it be encouraging them to register could be highly effective, very effective especially if it’s coming from within the community.” 

But the pandemic poses a unique set of challenges for organizations whose job it is to reach voters.

The community garden managed by the Yorkshire Woods Community Organization. (Photos by Cybelle Codish)

“It’s hard to get volunteers,” says Julie Campbell-Bode from Fems for Democracy. “People are hesitant to go out and want to do things from home. There are fewer voter registration events because people don’t want to do it. There is a lot of fear associated with the virus.”

Two years ago, for the 2018 midterm elections, Campbell-Bode was able to coordinate dozens of volunteers. This year, she and just one dedicated canvasser have been going out into Detroit communities to pass out flyers.

Meanwhile, on Detroit’s northeast side, 68-year-old Mose Primus, the Yorkshire Woods Community Organization president, is trying to get neighbors to vote. Primus is a charismatic figure and known as a tireless advocate of the community.

“We put it on social media and put it on an email blast,” Primus says. “If you needed a registration form, I would hand-deliver them, and if they wanted to send for an absentee ballot, I had the application for that too.”

One of the many events organized by the Yorkshire Woods Community Organization. (Photos by Cybelle Codish)

Primuse’s approach to registering people to vote has a long history in the Black community that began when Black soldiers returned after the second World War. 

Later, efforts by the Urban League coordinated mass distribution of flyers and door-to-door canvassing. In particular, Black women who had extensive involvement in the community’s social networks proved invaluable in reaching potential voters beginning in the civil rights movement right through the historic election of Barack Obama.  

Primus says he got energized about registering people to vote after working on the 2020 census.

Mose Primus, president of the Yorkshire Woods Community Organization,says he got energized about registering people to vote after working on the 2020 census. (Photos by Cybelle Codish)

“I had signed up to be a census captain and realized through talking to neighbors that many of them had not filled out the census form,” Primus says. “I was devastated by that.”

Primus says getting people to fill out the census was a significant undertaking, and as the election got closer, it dawned on him that he should use the same methods used by the census to get the vote out.

His organization held meetings in the community garden made up of six lots replete with vegetable, herb, and rain gardens. The space doubles as a de facto mayor’s office where Primus gets to know the community, their personal stories and encourages them to fill out a voter registration form. 

“I talk to a lot of people,” he says. “Sometimes they say I talk too much.”

But the talking seems to be working. Primus says about 50 people got absentee ballots because of the engagement by the Yorkshire Woods Community Organization.

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