Will ballot boxes ease the possibility of a Detroit Election Day disaster?

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There are 30 drop boxes and 23 satellite voting offices located throughout the city. (BridgeDetroit photo by Katy Locker)

The city of Detroit wants to ensure that the Nov. 3 election runs as smoothly as possible. So it is going to install more drop boxes for ballots across the city. 

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson say the drop boxes are located across the city to ensure full access to voting.

Beginning Oct. 5, there will be 21 satellite voting offices across the city, each of which will have one ballot drop-off box. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says there will also be about seven drop boxes at other locations throughout the city. She didn’t specify where each will be located, but says there will be close to 40 boxes by Election Day. 

With less than 40 days before the Nov. 3 election, the Michigan Department of State said the full list of locations for the ballot boxes isn’t final but to find a ballot drop box nearby, go to http://r.seiu.org/GoVoteMI. Benson says the idea was to spread them across the city to make sure everyone could vote within walking distance. 

“Certainly vehicle ownership and the like is in lower numbers per capita in the city than it is in other parts of the state, so essentially we want to make sure they’re accessible for everyone,” Benson said. “And also the geographic spread of the city is so large, and so spread out that we want to ensure every resident, no matter where they live, has full access to vote.”

The city is using money from the Help America Vote Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to fund the boxes, which cost $600 to $800 each, according to the Department of State. 

The announcement of more ballot boxes came after more than 70 percent of Detroit’s absentee voting precincts and nearly half of the city’s precincts overall were deemed ineligible for a recount in the August primary election. That prompted Wayne County and state officials to ask Benson to intervene in the city’s elections to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for Benson, says the drop boxes in Detroit are going to be secured and will have video surveillance.

“Ballot drop boxes must be securely locked or bolted to the ground or another stationary object, and their openings securely locked,” Wimmer said. “They are also meant to be in public, well-lit areas with good visibility, and clerks are encouraged to utilize video monitoring for ballot drop boxes depending on local conditions or hours drop boxes are available.”

Wimmer says some drop boxes will be inside public buildings that will be locked at night, but those buildings usually have separate surveillance systems. 

The ballot boxes may not be enough to make the November election run smoothly. In the August primary, about 24% of registered voters in Detroit cast ballots, a high turnout for a primary election. Experts believe the prevalence of mail-in voting caused the high turnout. But about 40,000 of those Detroit voters faced confusion about where they were supposed to vote. 

Complaints about Detroit’s elections have continued for at least 20 years, including issues with faulty voting machines, missing poll books, power outages and other problems that have left some Detroiters frustrated. 

A small group of protesters demonstrated against Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey Thursday night. Organizers say Winfrey is incompetent, and her inability to effectively manage Detroit elections will undermine the votes of citizen and ensure a victory for incumbent President Donald Trump. 

“The integrity and validity of our elections have been compromised for all the years that Janice Winfrey has been the Detroit City Clerk,” a Facebook page for the event reads. 

Winfrey says the city still has significant challenges that other municipalities in the state don’t, the most obvious being the size of the population. 

Detroit’s population may pale in comparison to the 1950s when it was at its peak, but it still has nearly 500,000 registered voters according to Winfrey. Counting those ballots takes a lot of work, she says. 

“We still need a lot of Election Day workers, people at the polls, people counting ballots, people making sure people know where to go to vote. But we weren’t able to have the power for that.  Because of the pandemic, people didn’t want to work and we were very short,” Winfrey said. 

As of the August primary, Detroit had 485,821 registered voters. Grand Rapids, the second-largest municipality in Michigan, had 142,976 during the August primary. While Detroit counted 121,298 ballots in early August, only 35,686 ballots were counted in Grand Rapids. 

Benson sees a need for workers as well, and she’s doing something about it. That something is a broad partnership between the city of Detroit, Wayne County and the state to recruit and train 6,000 election workers.

“One of the things we’ve been working to do is, as I mentioned before, increase the number of people that are able to help support election administration behind the scenes and meet the extraordinary needs of Detroit voters this year,” Benson said. 

But what else is being done to help with Detroit’s elections? Benson and Winfrey are changing ballot-counting and sorting practices to better use high-speed ballot counters and reduce errors.

Winfrey and Benson expect voter turnout to be higher in November than it was in August and say the issues seen in the primary could be bigger and more problematic for the fall election.

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