Was effort to stop the count in Detroit voter challenging or suppression?

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When Michigan was close to being called for Biden on Nov. 4, Detroit was in the middle of processing more than 100,000 absentee ballots. Pro-Trump protesters went to the TCF Center and asked that counting stop and Republican poll challengers be allowed to oversee the process. (Shutterstock photo)

A chaotic scene of chanting, banging on windows and protesting broke out in downtown Detroit Wednesday as presidential election poll workers were on their third consecutive day of processing and counting the city’s absentee ballots. 

An influx of conservative activists, some of them in an official poll challenger role, rushed to TCF Center, to object to the Detroit vote count.

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The doors, locked due to COVID capacity limitations, blocked their entrance and led to the gathering of hundreds outside and inside of the hall, causing a disruptive environment for poll workers.  

Keith Jones, who was team lead at the Detroit Central Counting Board managing four counting tables, described the dynamic.

“People of diverse backgrounds excited to be a part of history” worked to ensure each vote was counted accurately and securely, said Jones. 

“For me, it was a very challenging moment because a lot of the people seated at tables working were African-American folks,” Jones said. “Then you have four, five sometimes six people who are white from the Republican Party … being very aggressive … already under the assumption that we were in there doing something wrong.”

Conservative protesters demanded entry to Detroit’s absentee ballot processing center last Wednesday. (Shutterstock photo)

Jones said it became “chaotic” and conservative monitors who challenged “every single thing” slowed processing.

Jacob Kahn, a poll challenger and law student from Wayne State University, said there were multiple times when white GOP poll challengers were ”extremely belligerent” to poll inspectors, disregarded the rules and even tried to force poll workers to “toss ballots.”

Lutricia Valentine, a poll inspector, shared a Facebook post about her experience. “We stayed the course in spite of the taunting and intimidation by Republican challengers and efforts to stop the process.”

At one point, protesters started beating on the windows and doors at the entrance of the room. Khan and Jones both said that they feared the glass would shatter. 

“You had challengers at the tables challenging everything without reason, challengers chanting inside the room, people pounding at the door, and we were just trying to stay focused,” Jones explained. “It gave me a glimpse into what it felt like to be in Alabama in the 1960s as a Black man.”

Poll challengers or protesters?

Ken Kollman, director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan, said that typically, poll challengers are appointed by a political party or by a registered interest group and should not display any indication of their own political preferences specifically with regard to candidates and parties.

“The people protesting were clearly not challengers in the formal, legal sense,” he told BridgeDetroit.

According to the Secretary of State, a challenger can be removed for unnecessarily obstructing or delaying the work of election inspectors or acting in a disorderly manner.

“There’s a distinction in Michigan between a poll challenger and a poll watcher.  In neither case can they be disruptive, and if they are disruptive they can be asked to leave,” Kollman said. “Kicking out the people who were waving signs and chanting was well within the legal authority of those operating the ballot counting spaces.”

When does chaos and disruption become intimidation and suppression?

At the least, one might say that the disruptive incidents that took place inside and outside of the Central Counting Board were intimidation. 

Even though only one Republican, one Democrat and one independent challenger were allowed at each counting board, Kahn said there were multiple instances when GOP challengers would break the rule by using their status as professional attorneys. He explained the tactic of “wearing two different hats” was meant to intimidate poll workers.

Detroit police gathered inside the TCF Center to help manage pro-Trump protesters. (BridgeDetroit photo by Bisma Parvez)

“There would already be a Democratic challenger and a GOP challenger and a lawyer would walk up, who’s already credentialed as a GOP challenger … and say, ‘I’m not a challenger. I’m this person’s lawyer,’” he said. “It was intimidating … and it would strike fear in a lot of the election workers because they don’t want to get in trouble for doing anything wrong,” he said.

The Secretary of State’s office told BridgeDetroit, while there are not “restrictions on protesting specifically, there are regulations about watchers or challengers causing disturbances at polling locations or counting boards.”

Around 3 p.m., there was an uproar in the middle of the room and a large group of about 30 people started shouting ‘Stop the count! Stop the count!’” The people chanting were registered GOP poll challengers who were supposed to be watching the absentee counting process.

“It gave me a glimpse into what it felt like to be in Alabama in the 1960s as a Black man.” – Keith Jones

“It was intimidation and it was obstruction. They were physically trying to prevent ballots from being counted,” Kahn said. “They [Republican poll challengers] were not supposed to talk to the actual poll workers … only to the supervisors but they completely disregarded that rule.” 

While people have a constitutional right to express their opinion and peacefully protest, Sharon Dolente, ACLU of Michigan’s voting rights strategist and poll challenger said, “protesters cannot physically disrupt the event they are protesting.”

ACLU voting rights specialist Sharon Dolente said she believes some poll challenger behavior was “unlawful.” (BridgeDetroit photo by Bisma Parvez)

Dolente said she believes the disruptive protesting and chanting inside of the room was unlawful. 

“A challenger does not have the right to stay in the room if they are being disruptive,” said Dolente who said participating Republican poll challengers should have been kicked out. “This disruption, while the room is already at capacity, takes the focus off the important work of counting every single vote.”

“Determinations about what qualifies as a disturbance are made by the clerk and the elections officials present at the location,” said Tracy Wimmer, at the Secretary of State’s office. 

City Clerk Janice Winfrey said she was not aware of any incident reports from Republican challengers.  

“If partisan challengers had concerns about ‘incidents,’ they should have stated their concerns during the process, as the law calls for them to do,” said Winfrey.  

Despite the disruption and intimidation, it seems no challengers were charged with a crime.

“The Attorney General’s office is not aware of any specific complaints about disruptive challengers inside the TCF Center in Detroit,” Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for the Michigan Department of Attorney General Dana Nessel, told BridgeDetroit. “Local authorities present at this facility, and others like it, are best able to determine whether actions carried out there constitute a crime, and they are best suited to handle such situations.”


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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