Detroit hired more than 6,000 people to work the city’s elections (Shutterstock)

Thousands of Detroiters have answered the call to work Election Day for the first time, according to election officials and others involved in recruiting efforts.

The flood of interest comes during an unprecedented election cycle, where absentee ballots will be the way most Detroiters will vote due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a 2018 change in state law. 

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Many Detroiters said they are motivated to become poll workers, as well as participate in other ways, due to concerns that conservatives are employing voter suppression tactics aimed at Blacks and urbanites.  

Most want to make sure Detroit’s votes count.

The August primary resulted in an error-riddled count of absentee ballots; essentially there were far too many precincts where the number of ballots didn’t match the various ways they are tallied by machines, computers and workers. 

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, whose office is in charge of running elections in the city, partly blamed poll workers for the summer fiasco.

“We know what it looks like when workers walk off the job, i.e. August. We’re not having that anymore,” Winfrey said at a weekly City Council meeting this month. Winfrey said there’s a huge pay raise for Detroit poll workers for the Nov. 3 election. The move helped diversify and deepen the pool of applicants. Starting pay is $600 for a shift that can last up to 15 hours. The August primary pay was about $200, according to election officials.  

Detroit has met its goal of hiring 6,000 poll workers, said Tracy Wimmer, spokeswoman for the Michigan Secretary of State. Not an unusual number of workers during a presidential election.

What is different this year is the large increase in absentee ballots. Officials estimate about 150,000 to 170,000 Detroiters will use some form of early voting

Since the August primary, the Michigan Secretary of State has taken on a “partnership” role with the Detroit City Clerk for the presidential election. The state agency added temporary new staff in top roles at the City Clerk, helped oversee the creation of 23 satellite voting offices and 30 ballot drop boxes, played a role in recruiting poll workers and assisted in retooling the training of workers. 

Plenty of nongovernmental organizations have also stepped up. Churches, neighborhood groups and nonprofits are engaged in grassroots efforts to get out the vote.   

“We are seeing a lot of motivated Detroiters who want to get involved, it’s very encouraging,” said LaToya Henry, spokeswoman for the Detroit branch of the NAACP. The nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP has long been involved in protecting voters’ rights. This year, it was part of a coalition, which included the Secretary of State, in recruiting a “couple thousand” Detroit poll workers, Henry said. 

Beyond poll workers, an unusually high number of lawyers and other legal professionals have volunteered to be poll monitors, Henry said. Poll monitors keep an eye on any potential intimidation tactics of voters.

Keisa Davis is a new election volunteer. For two months, she’s been making weekly calls to fellow Detroit voters to ensure they are up to date on polling locations and other election information. She’s also helping recruit other volunteers.

“I’m doing it because voting is one of the strategies to achieve liberation and impact policy change,” Davis said. “We all know the issues: unemployment, housing, racial policing, the prison-industrial complex. These all are wounds of colonialism. But they have been ripped wide open with the administration we have in place. 

‘We’ll survive if Trump is re-elected, but it’s going to be very dire,” Davis said. She’s had friends move out of the country due to the current political atmosphere.

While enthusiasm is high, many Detroit poll workers and others say they remain confused by the lack of information and understanding of how a poll worker is hired.

“Why is it hard to get basic information from them, or even return a phone call?” asked Detroiter Carolyn Geck.

Geck and her husband, Francis Grunow, applied to be Detroit poll workers for the first time. The two handed in their applications in late September to the City Clerk. Geck got a call within a few days of applying and the following week went through a three-hour training to process absentee ballots on Election Day. 

Grunow hasn’t heard anything from election officials. In early October, he went to the city’s Department of Elections office in New Center to get some answers. Because of COVID-19, the office isn’t very accessible to the public. The person most willing to talk was a security guard. “He told me they had a ton of applications and not to worry, someone would contact me,” Grunow said. Grunow hasn’t been contacted.

Last weekend, Gabriela Santiago-Romero posted on social media that she applied to be an election worker on Oct. 2.  She’s frustrated she hasn’t heard anything more than two weeks later. A half-dozen Detroiters responded to her post and said they were in the same situation. One posted she knew other Detroiters who had applied yet hadn’t been notified. 

Eventually, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson responded to Santiago-Romero’s post.  “While most positions are already filled,  if you are interested in serving as an election worker please sign up at,” Benson wrote.  

The nonprofit Detroit Action was instructed by city officials weeks ago to stop recruiting for poll workers because all spots had been filled, organizers for the group said. Meanwhile, city and state were still advertising for more Election Day workers.

This week the City Clerk said it sent messages to those who had applied and were awaiting training that while the goal had been temporarily met, those applicants could stand by in case a last-minute need arose.

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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