Detroit resident Sharita Gadson had spurned the ballot box for years, but strong support for abortion rights in Michigan and the first voting experience for her children changed her mind.
Gadson said since giving birth again in August it’s been a struggle to find baby formula amid a national shortage. She said the government shouldn’t have a role in a woman’s pregnancy and nothing is being done to help families that might be forced to have a child after the repeal of federal abortion rights.
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“It just bothered me because (anti-abortion groups) want to regulate as far as ‘this is a baby and should be born,’ but we don’t have a way to feed the kid,” said Gadson, who arrived at Mason Elementary School on the northeast side Tuesday minutes before the polls closed. “If we’re going to sit up here and advocate for children, can we at least find a way that they have something to eat? It shouldn’t be that hard for me to get my child formula.”
Abortion rights supporters showed up in force to support Proposal 3 on Tuesday, but Detroit voters were far more united on the question than the state as a whole. Eighty-four percent of Detroiters said ‘yes,’ while 56% of all Michigan voters supported Proposal 3. The ballot measure’s success means the right to abortion is reestablished in Michigan less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as a constitutional right.
Many Detroit voters said reproductive rights brought them out to the polls for the midterm. Voters at polling sites across the city told BridgeDetroit investment in public education, reducing inflation, increasing opportunity, Detroit’s voice in democracy and another term for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were also top of mind on Election Day.
The city’s voters were overwhelmingly on the side of Democrats, with 95% of voters selecting all Democratic candidates using Michigan’s straight party ticket option – creating more unity around some Democratic candidates in comparison to the rest of the state.
Michigan voters re-elected all three statewide candidates – meaning another four years in office for Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel – gave Democrats control of the Michigan House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years and flipped a congressional seat.
Whitmer beat Republican gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon with 54% of the statewide vote, according to unofficial results. Dixon had support from 45% of Michigan voters, putting her around 9 percentage points behind Whitmer. In Detroit, the margin was much wider; Whitmer held 95% of the Detroit vote to Dixon’s 4%.
Turnout in Detroit was 34%, slightly higher than Clerk Janice Winfrey’s pre-election estimate, but still below the city’s participation in 2018 midterm elections. There were 194,260 Detroiters who cast a ballot four years ago. Unofficial results from Wednesday morning showed 171,635 votes in this election, a decline of 11%.
Benson said 40 of the state’s 100 lowest turnout precincts are located in Detroit. But Detroiters embraced the ability to vote through absentee ballots. Detroit Elections Director Daniel Baxter said 80,000 absentee ballots were processed, almost twice as many than in 2018.
Danielle Breck and her husband Thomas, residents of Detroit’s northeast side, said they campaigned for Proposal 3 so their daughter would have reproductive freedom. Breck said she liked Dixon for governor, but couldn’t stand by her “extreme position” on abortion. While she agreed with some of the Republican candidates’ policies, like fewer restrictions during the pandemic, “it doesn’t undo the potential damage to my daughter’s rights.”
Dixon targeted Whitmer’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the negative impacts of the governor’s orders to temporarily restrict business and close schools. However, some Detroit voters told BridgeDetroit that Whitmer’s action to protect public health was a major reason they supported her.
Paula Drummond, a resident of the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, said Whitmer “made the right decisions” to protect the state from COVID-19. Drummond said she doubts that a Republican governor would have prioritized vulnerable people. Black Detroiters made up a disproportionately large number of those killed and hospitalized from the coronavirus.
“In our community, the Black community, a lot more people passed (away),” Drummond said. “I personally know a lot of people who passed from COVID, so I appreciate her efforts. It could have been way worse.”
Sherisse M. Butler, executive director of AJ Butler Northeast Detroit Community Action Coalition, said Whitmer’s ability to direct funds to school buildings and for mental health contributed to her support in Detroit.
The governor, she noted, took advantage of a windfall of federal pandemic relief funds to pass a bipartisan budget with unprecedented investment in public education.
“We’ve seen the highest level of investment in public education and the foresight to think about infrastructure,” Butler said, gesturing to a building across the street from her polling location on Detroit’s northeast side. “I went to this elementary school and this is finally going to be torn down because there’s enough money, but then there’s additional funding to think about making sure there’s air conditioning (in other schools). So when I think about that – my mom and my siblings still stay nearby – I think about someone investing in a school that we could send my little niece to. I feel like we’ve seen that under Whitmer.”
Butler, who organized young workers to help her direct people to the polls, said the abortion initiative was also a major driver in the election, especially for younger voters. She said she was woken up by a 4:30 a.m. phone call on Election Day reporting her organization was at capacity.
“Interesting enough, you even hear young men talk about reproductive freedom – their perspective is just as wide and as open as young ladies,” Butler said. ‘It drives young folks to the polls.”
Satellite voting centers and ballot drop boxes were set up around Detroit weeks before the election to help residents vote early.
“Voters appreciate having options,” said Matt Friedman, a spokesman for Detroit Votes, a campaign the city launched in August to register and educate voters with help from business groups, colleges, civic groups and sports teams.
“This is all relatively new. The right to absentee ballots for any reason was adopted in the state constitution just in 2019. Satellite voting centers, the 20 drop boxes throughout the city, that’s what we were concerned with for the last couple of months …,” he said. “What we need to continue to do is make sure Detroiters understand their options and understand their vote counts the same and is handled the right way.”
In another key race for Detroit, LaTrice McClendon, Iris Taylor, Corletta Vaughn and Angelique Peterson-Mayberry came out on top in the race for four seats on the board of education for Detroit Public Schools Community District. Eighteen candidates were running for a spot on the seven-member school board, which oversees and sets policy for the district’s 49,000 students.
Democrats Pamela Pugh and Mitchell Robinson were Detroit’s top choices for the Michigan Board of Education. They were poised to win two open seats on the board over Republican candidates.
Detroit’s picks for the Michigan Supreme Court didn’t pan out, however. The city supported Democratic nominees Justice Richard Bernstein and State Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden for two seats, but Republican nominee Brian Zahra finished second statewide, preventing Bolden from becoming the first Black woman to be on the court.
State Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, and state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, both handily won reelection.
Black representation lost
State Rep. Shri Thanedar, D-Detroit, declared an early victory in Michigan’s 13th District U.S. House race, though he was all but guaranteed to secure his first term in Congress given the large Democratic voting base in the district.
Thanedar finished with 71% of the vote, beating Republican challenger Martell Bivings by 110,092 votes. Bivings earned 56,111 votes overall, according to unofficial results.
“Growing up in abject poverty, I never would have thought I would have this opportunity to serve in the House of Representatives,” Thanedar said in a statement. “This truly is an honor of a lifetime. Thank you to my amazing team, my family, volunteers, and voters who helped make this campaign successful.”
Detroit’s population is split between two newly-drawn congressional districts, though most residents are in the 13th Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, soared to re-election with 69% of the vote in the new 12th District.
Thanedar, an Indian American, emerged from a contested primary over several Black candidates to secure the Democratic nomination earlier this year. His victory means Detroit, a majority-Black city, loses Black representation in Congress for the first time in 70 years. Thanedar said this was not a major concern for Black Detroiters who supported him during the campaign, but his ethnicity was a talking point for Bivings, who urged voters to protect Black representation by voting Republican.
“You can’t vote for nobody who don’t play spades,” Bivings told one group of Black women Tuesday outside a polling site on Detroit’s southeast side.
Bivings said the Republican Party was unwilling to drop major financial resources to support his campaign, but argues that his candidacy could mark a turning point for the relationship between the Republican Party and Black Detroiters.
“This election – for me, being a Republican in Detroit, a true Detroiter – is going to open the gates up for others to come into the (Republican) party and to do this because the Democratic Party is pushing us out and they take us for granted,” he said.
Bivings earned more votes and ran closer margins than both 2018 Republican nominees in the
old congressional districts that covered Detroit. Bivings earned 24% of the Wayne County vote, but the native Detroiter only earned 5.3% of votes from the city.
A Black Republican is headed to Washington, but not to represent Detroit.
Farmington Hills businessman John James beat Democrat Carl Marlinga, a former prosecutor, to win a majority-white district covering parts of Macomb and Oakland counties. James is the first Black Republican to represent Michigan in Congress.
Drummond said she was less than enthusiastic to cast a vote for Thanedar. She supported him because he’s a Democrat, she said, but is disappointed that Detroit won’t have a Black voice in Congress.
“That makes a difference,” Drummond said. “Our issues are not the same as his issues.”
In southeast Detroit, Thanedar talked with voters about what they want him to fight for in Congress. He asked some residents if they would invite him to community meetings so he could better understand their needs. Charles Taylor spent a few minutes talking with Thanedar outside a polling location before casting his vote.
“There’s a lot of issues I feel like we as a community should be reaching for, but it starts with leadership,” Taylor said. “If you’re looking to be a leader, this is the first step, but once you get into a place of leadership and become accountable, it’s not really on us.You have to be more accessible to the people.”
Thanedar promised: “I will show up, I will be there.”
Smooth and steady
Federal law enforcement officials were on watch in Detroit Tuesday for attempts to disrupt the election, but the process went off without much issue.
One Detroit poll challenger was removed from a voting precinct for allegedly disrupting the process of counting votes, according to the secretary of state. An earlier issue involving electronic pollbook errors at a “handful of precincts” was caught quickly and did not affect anyone’s ability to vote.
Partisan election challengers did not question a flood of ballots as some observers had feared, said Aghogo Edevbie, Michigan state director for All Voting is Local, a nonprofit voting rights advocacy organization.
“Everyone has just been very prepared and that’s why nothing has happened,” Edevbie said. “Voters coming out in force also has a very clear deterrence to any of this nonsense.”
Two years after false claims of fraud caused chaos at Detroit’s absentee ballot Central Counting Board, the situation Tuesday was relatively serene. Enhanced security measures and a change in location within Huntington Place were employed to deter partisan actors from disrupting the process.
However, supporters of former President Donald Trump appeared to be on the lookout for anything that could cast doubt on Detroit’s results. Republican Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo, a Black woman who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit just before the election seeking to block Detroit absentee ballots, drew attention to the minor error at Detroit precincts. Karamo told followers on her social media accounts that the mistake was actually evidence of a crime, though she did not provide proof.
Trump soon followed suit, urging his supporters to “Protest! Protest! Protest!” in Detroit. Michigan’s secretary of state responded on Twitter, stressing that the claims were untrue.
“Please don’t spread lies to foment or encourage political violence in our state,” Benson wrote.