Conservative poll challengers gathered outside of the TCF Center and Detroit Election’s Central Counting Board to oversee the city’s voting process. (BridgeDetroit photo by Bryce Huffman)

Hundreds of conservative challengers attempted to crowd into the room Wednesday where Detroit poll workers are processing and counting absentee ballots, momentarily disrupting the flow of work.

Police and security told challengers starting early Wednesday afternoon the 90,000-square-foot conference room at TCF Center was at capacity. The room is the city’s Central Counting Board, where more than 1,000 poll workers are tabulating the record number of absentee ballots.

Live video from TCF Center #Election313

— BridgeDetroit (@BridgeDet313) November 4, 2020

GOP strategists sent out emails advising supporters to go to TCF to serve as last-minute challengers. The North Oakland Republican Club’s alert went to its members shortly after noon on Wednesday.

“WE NEED YOU! If you are able, and willing to secure each LEGALLY voted ballot, PLEASE go to TCF Center,” the note read, adding that they would be given short training to make sure we have a “FAIR and JUST election.”

Tensions grew as more challengers gathered and were denied entrance. Some challengers began to bang on the windows and doors of the secured room. Challengers got into a verbal altercation with police when journalists and other personnel were allowed to enter the room and officers momentarily locked the doors.

“Let us in” chants happening now by poll challengers at TCF Center. #Election313

— BridgeDetroit (@BridgeDet313) November 4, 2020

Shortly after, some challengers inside the room began to chant, “‘Stop the count!’” and gathered near the back of the hall. The chanting was short-lived and by 4 p.m. the room was calm again as ballot processing continued and the challengers dispersed. Some were escorted out by Detroit Police.

Throughout the afternoon, Republicans tweeted accusations that the process was unfair at TCF. Michigan Senate Pro Tempore Aric Nesbitt shared a video claiming Detroit election workers were “cheering every time a @migop attorney is removed from the TCF Center.

Republicans argue the process is unfairly allowing more Democratic-leaning challengers than Republicans.

The assertion is false, city officials contend. The room has 570 challengers, which includes 227 Republicans, 268 Democrats and 75 nonpartisans, election officials told journalists. But some of those nonpartisan groups are left-leaning, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters. 

Both political parties had already hit the maximum of 134 challengers allowed inside the room, said Sharon Dolente, the voting rights strategist for the ACLU of Michigan, who has been in the Central Counting Board room since 10 a.m Wednesday.

“This is the most crowded room I have been in nine months. It is wall-to-wall people in here,” Dolente said.  “There is no doubt that every organization that has challenger credentials is in this room and observing the process, which is the way it ought to be.” 

Michigan GOP Party Chair Laura Cox claimed Republicans were “blocked from entering the TCF Center” in mid-afternoon. In fact, space was limited because of COVID restrictions.

The crowd surge began around the time that various media outlets reported that President Trump was in danger of losing the state to Democratic challenger Joseph Biden. The Trump campaign filed a lawsuit in Michigan Court of Claims to halt the count. 

Workers continued to process and count ballots. But outside the room as well as on the street just outside the TCF Center, crowds of both Trump fans and critics gathered. 

There were dozens of angry Trump supporters chanting “stop the count” and “stop the vote” outside the doors to the TCF Center demanding they be let into the building. One such protester was Bobby Helsey, a Detroit-born Black man who supports Donald Trump. Hesley says he wasn’t there to cause trouble, just to make sure the counting process was fair. 

“I’m here because I believe Black Lives Matter but I also believe Black votes matter and in the city of Detroit there are a lot of Black folks that are voting for Trump….this is Jim Crow 1950s style right here,” Hesley said.

Other conservatives came to the TCF Center hoping to be poll challengers but weren’t let into the TCF Center. Rose Lang, a Washtenaw County resident who owns property in Detroit, showed up to TCF after hearing the GOP needed more challengers, but she wasn’t let in. 

“I personally do not think they’re at maximum capacity. And the reason for that is because they’re allowing media in which if they were at maximum capacity, they shouldn’t even allow media or attorneys in,” Lang said. 

Several counter protesters came to chant “count every vote” and to ensure the city’s election process wouldn’t be halted by people who by and large weren’t from the city of Detroit. One such person was Detroit resident and mother Ellie St. Clair. She originally showed up to volunteer, but then when the protest sparked outside, her plans changed.

“Now I’m here just for accountability, to bring some balance to the narrative that will be told form tonight, and this is my city so I want to be a witness to what’s going on in real time,” St. Clair said. 

That narrative St. Clair is referring to is the same one President Trump has floated to conservative voters for months: if Biden wins, voter fraud is to blame. St. Clair says this strong support for President Trump from mostly white non-Detroiters highlights some of the racial dynamics in the state of Michigan.

“I think that we understood that Michigan is a racist state, I think that what we’re understanding is that it’s a little more racist than we thought,” she said. 

As the evening went on, fewer and fewer Trump supporters stayed. By 6:30 p.m. the crowd of GOP poll challengers trying to enter the TCF center had dispersed. The remaining crowd became overwhelmingly made up of counter protesters. But some GOP supporters remained. 

Shelly R. from Redford Township says she came to the TCF Center to protest with several other church members Wednesday afternoon when she heard Biden was winning the state of Michigan. The group huddled in a circle and sang church songs for several hours. 

Shelly, who wouldn’t give her full name for privacy reasons, says she doesn’t think it’s possible that Biden could have won the state. She says she thinks thousands of ballots must have gone missing in the TCF Center. But she says she believes God will intervene to ensure the right winner. 

“I’m a suburban housewife,” she said. “I don’t have a lawyer, but I do have Jesus.” 

Derrick Klug from Pontiac was among the singers. He also spent the day working as a GOP poll challenger for the elections central counting board inside the TCF Center. He says it didn’t seem like any of the Republican challengers had a firm grasp on the process. 

“At one point, somebody said just challenge everything,” Klug said. “It felt weird but I was doing it for a bit. It was so chaotic.”

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  1. One thing not noted is in addition to challengers – election workers need to be a mix of party affiliations . So probably half of the people doing the absentee ballot counting were Republicans already. Not being a party person it is a reason why after 25 years of being an election worker in Wisconsin , I did not continue to do it here. Also if the League of Women voters is viewed as left leaning- we are in real trouble – as their major role is insuring people the vote and all of their materials work to provide information about all candidates willing to share their positions. They can only be defined as left leaning if your position is that voters should be kept from voting.

  2. I am so very proud of Detroit and Detroiters for voting in great numbers, in standing up for their right to vote and for protecting their votes. Good going!
    Keeping our democracy strong.

    Ms Barbara ZB

  3. And everyone knows that the American Civil Liberties Union is absolutely partisan! They are all Democrats! They hate conservative values.

  4. WOW – who talks like that ??? Who claims the ACLU hates conservative values ?? And to state that they are only Democrats – insults your own party. Are Repubs against civil liberties ?????

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