Though the City of Detroit had 39 drop boxes for the 2020 election, this year there won’t be as many locations for voters to drop their ballots. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Even before the pandemic, the 2020 election was deemed to be high stakes. Then COVID-19 hit. Concerns about voter turnout and general coronavirus chaos meant many states saw a flood of extra funds with which to hold elections. Nowhere was this greater than in Michigan, which got 474 grants from the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) — a Mark Zuckerberg-affiliated charity that contributed $400 million nationwide toward the 2020 election.

Related: Who is paying for Detroit’s revamped November election?

The money was something of a lifeboat, with Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey calling the three grants the city received “key.” Totalling $7.2 million, the grants allowed Detroit to hire extra poll workers, order high-speed tabulators, open 23 satellite voting centers, place 39 ballot drop boxes around the city and process an unprecedented number of absentee ballots. 

And despite a nationally watched debacle around Wayne County’s vote certification, the election was certified and deemed a success with, despite a pandemic, more than 250,000 Detroiters voting in the 2020 general election — a 1 percent increase from 2016. 

Nearly 70 percent of that number voted absentee, and a quarter of the voters used the city drop boxes. 

“The evidence is clear: There were no irregularities, there was no evidence of widespread fraud, and, in fact, they were simply minor clerical errors that we were discussing, actually less clerical errors than in past elections,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said following the certification. Benson had partnered with Winfrey in September 2020 to help ensure the general election — with the extra funding — went smoothly. 

But there are questions now about what to expect next week, when the City of Detroit holds an election without a high-profile national election  — or the extra funds. 

The effects can already be seen. Though the City of Detroit had 39 drop boxes for the 2020 general election, there were only 19 for this past summer’s primary. 

Winfrey attributed the decrease in drop boxes to the expectation of lower voter turnout and costs. 

“Winfrey said there are also costs associated with staffing each drop box — which Winfrey said are emptied twice a day — as well as security that includes camera surveillance and paying for personnel to monitor the boxes,” the Free Press reported. 

BridgeDetroit reached out to Winfrey’s office to find out how much in federal and third-party grants the office has this year. Her office did not respond to an email, or to another CC’ing the Secretary of State’s Office. 

“The complicated short answer is that it would be easier and faster to ask the Detroit Clerk for specific dollar amounts, as there are multiple funding streams localities could have received funds from us last year (including federal grant money and CARES money that we distributed in the form of things like drop boxes, PPE, reimbursement for postage and prepaid return envelopes, etc.),” SoS spokesperson Tracy Wimmer said in an email. “Also keep in mind that while the funding amounts may differ, so does the size of the election—a federal presidential election is much different than local races, and requires different things. Also worth noting of course that the pandemic changed the funding distribution landscape significantly for localities.” 

According to city documents, without extra grants, the City Clerk’s office has a budget of $2.5 million, and the Department of Elections has a budget of $10 million

Though funding may be a legitimate hurdle for the department, Winfrey’s opponent in November’s election, Denzel McCampbell, questions the logic of having fewer drop boxes because of an anticipated decrease in voter turnout. 

“We are still talking about an election in the midst of a pandemic, and if it really was a budgetary concern, why aren’t we hearing a siren about this way before the action (of removing drop boxes) has already been taken?” he questioned. 

Voter turnout during August’s primary was 14.3 percent — a small increase from 2017’s municipal primary, in which  turnout landed at 13.9 percent. But McCampbell maintains there should be even more of a push to get the vote out. 

“Instead of taking up drop boxes, we should be increasing efforts to reach out to voters to encourage them to vote. This is basically giving up on efforts before even trying,” said McCampbell, who currently serves as the communications director for Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. 

But, while a decrease in resources — like drop boxes — may be an outgrowth of the lack of funding, the city has not fallen back into other, more troubling habits: like uncountable votes. 

Winfrey, who was first elected as city clerk in 2005, has come under fire multiple times over the years for running a haphazard and error-prone election process. Most recently, this occurred during the August 2020 primary, when nearly half of the city’s precincts were deemed ineligible for a recount due to incompatible electronic pollbook entries and voter tallies. 

The issue went away last November, thanks in part to the extra funding. But even without these dollars, an analysis of the August 2021 primary found “huge improvement” when it came to balancing election ballots. 

During the August 2021 primary, 594 out of Detroit’s 623 precincts — about 95 percent — were balanced. In juxtaposition, during the August 2020 primary, nearly 75 percent of the city’s absentee ballots had discrepancies, and more than 20 percent of the in-person votes in the primary election had mismatches.

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