An activist in Detroit in 2018. Fears of voter suppression are heightened in the 2020 election. (Stephanie Kenner /

Detroiters should be free to vote without the fear of intimidation but the line between voter suppression and legal poll watching can get tricky if voters don’t know their rights. 

Days before the presidential election, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist spoke about voter intimidation at a news conference Oct. 28. 

“Let me be clear: All Michiganders have the right to vote without fear of intimidation or violence,” Whitmer said. “Voter intimidation is illegal.”

The Department of Justice today announced plans to monitor and enforce federal voting rights law and will send officials to Detroit and seven cities in Michigan. 

Voter suppression is ‘nothing new’ for the Black community

Voter suppression can be a concern in a majority-minority city like Detroit, where almost 80 percent of Detroiters are Black. Fears have been heightened because of the political climate since President Donald Trump refused to denounce white supremacy and his campaign announced an effort to recruit an “army for Trump” on Election Day.


In the August primary, Republicans complained about Detroit election workers using cellphones during the absentee count, not checking ballots against voter lists and missing votes on ballots, among other concerns. 

Jonathan Kinloch, vice chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers and chair of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party, told BridgeDetroit that it’s typical “to hear rumblings about tactics that will be used by Republicans coming into Detroit and trying to interrupt, intimidate or create a ruckus around election time.”

But he hopes that isn’t the case. 

ALERT: Police and security have just kicked out from TCF Center in Detroit – where absentee ballots are being processed – a poll challenger wearing a horror-movie mask. He shouted to the poll workers before being escorted out. Did not tell journalists his name. Video:

— Niraj Warikoo (@nwarikoo) November 2, 2020

According to a study released last week by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and MilitiaWatch, Michigan is one of five states “most likely to experience heightened militia activity before, during, and after the election.”

“When it comes to Black people, we have been used to this happening ever since we’ve had an opportunity to vote in this country so it’s nothing new for Blacks in any community,” Kinloch explained. “And Black folks, we know our rights too.”

The Michigan Secretary of State attempted to ban open-carry at the polls on Election Day. (ACLU photo courtesy of Bre’Ann White)

The Secretary of State and the Attorney General said they are “keenly aware of the potential for attempts at suppression or intimidation in the Detroit area” and have been working with the mayor and local law enforcement to ensure that any calls made regarding suppression or intimidation on Election Day are quickly dealt with. 

Kinloch is also concerned about intimidation from Republican poll challengers

In Detroit, in addition to the Republican Party, the Election Integrity Fund and the Libertarian Party among other groups, will serve as poll challengers. 

Nessel clarified at the Oct. 28 news conference that if voters have any outstanding warrants, owe money for child support, or any other similar debts, they will not be questioned and there will be no action taken against them. “There will be nothing that interferes with your ability to vote,” she said. 

Voter intimidation in any form is still an act of voter suppression according to state officials and there are strict guidelines in place for poll watchers and challengers, according to the Secretary of State. 

While precautions are in place, Nessel said they are not anticipating any problems at the polls.

Poll watching, the right to free speech, and the right to assemble are legal so it’s important to know what is allowed at the polls. 

“Depending on the words that come out of their mouth or if they put their hands on people, that’s the line of demarcation,” Kinloch explained. “Yelling into the wind is one thing, but yelling directly at voters, interfering with their access into the voting locations, that’s where the line is drawn.”

According to the Secretary of State, the following actions are considered intimidation and in violation of Michigan election law:

  • Talking to voters. Poll watchers and challengers  can only speak with election inspectors and poll workers. 
  • Claiming a voter is ineligible to vote.
  • Touching or handling the poll book and other election materials.
  • Using a video camera or recording device in a polling place.

“We have such broad-based laws on the books to protect voters,” Nessel said at the news conference. “You cannot threaten someone at the polls, you cannot harass someone, you cannot intimidate someone at the polls and every person in law enforcement understands this to be true.”

Anyone who violates these laws should be asked to leave by poll workers and if the person refuses or becomes disruptive, law  enforcement should be called. 

The Detroit Police Department enforces restrictions at city polling locations.

Can you take a gun to the polls?

Seventeen days before election, Benson prohibited open carry firearms within 100 feet of polling places on Election Day. But on Tuesday, a Michigan judge ruled against Benson’s directive after pro-gun groups filed a lawsuit.

According to the Secretary of State, the Court of Appeals rejected Benson’s appeal but the three-member panel recognized that brandishing a firearm to intimidate a voter is a felony under Michigan legislation,  and is enforceable.  

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who was in touch with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Nessel to discuss the attorney general’s interpretation of Michigan law and the Secretary of State’s authority to ban open carry firearms at the polls, told BridgeDetroit that his office would be available to any community if the ban is in place.

What are officials doing to keep the Detroit vote safe?

Police Chief James Craig said  last week the police department was monitoring possible voter intimidation activity from an intelligence standpoint but he hadn’t heard anything unusual. 

“About 60 percent of the turnout will be in absentees, so the turn out will be a little lighter at the precincts and a lot more manageable than it was in previous presidential elections.” Daniel Baxter, of  the City Clerk’s office, said at a recent news conference.

He said officials at the city clerk’s office coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security and the police and fire departments to make sure Detroit elections run smoothly. Election workers were also trained in conflict resolution to prepare for voter intimidation.

Voters who witness or experience voter intimidation can call 911, the local clerk’s office, the Department of Elections or 866-OUR-VOTE. The Attorney General’s office will also be open on Election Day and are encouraging voters to call 517-335-7659 if there are any issues or concerns while at the polls. 

This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

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