Detroit’s August election woes have many worried about November


Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is facing calls to investigate and improve the city of Detroit’s poll worker training and other processes following worker errors earlier this month and during the 2016 presidential election. (Shutterstock photo)

Wayne County and state elections officials are raising concerns about Detroit’s messy August primary, which left nearly half of the city’s precincts ineligible for a recount. After years of similar problems, they’re asking Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to intervene to make sure errors aren’t repeated in November. 

The city’s already problem-plagued election system faced additional burdens in the midst of a global pandemic. The result: hundreds of precincts where the total number of primary votes cast was at least one ballot off from the number recorded, without explanation for the mismatch, making the entire precinct’s votes ineligible for a recount, if one were needed.

The problem was especially acute among the city’s absentee voting precincts, 72 percent of which couldn’t be recounted if necessary. With absentee ballots expected to double in the general election, some Detroiters and election officials at the state level are nervously reviewing issues with the city’s primary election with an eye toward November, when Michigan once again may be a pivotal state in the hotly-contested presidential election.

In 2016, President Trump won Michigan by a mere 10,704 votes out of a total of 4.5 million. While Michigan is expected to be a harder get for the president in 2020, it’s still likely to be close. 

The implications — that if a recount was demanded in the case of a close race, many Detroiters’ votes may not be recounted — are not lost on Michigan officials. 

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers this month asked Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office to investigate the city’s election worker training and other processes. Last week, the Board of State Canvassers certified the state’s primary election results “with the requirement that the secretary of state exercise supervisory control” over Detroit’s elections if problems aren’t fixed before November. 

While Benson’s office has said it will “support and assist” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey in November, state Elections Director Jonathan Brater made it clear the department won’t take over. 

"Logistically, practically, it's not possible for the Bureau of Elections to run Detroit's elections,” he told the board. It’s also unclear whether the state canvassing board has the power to compel the Secretary of State’s office to do so. 

But many still argue something drastic needs to be done to protect the integrity of votes cast by city residents in the fall. There’s a lot to lose: Detroit is the largest city in the state, the most reliably Democratic voting bloc, and the city with the highest percentage of African Americans in the nation. (According to 2019 Census estimates, the city is 79 percent African American, 10 percent white and 8 percent Latino.) 

“If this investigation does not produce changes, if we can’t rectify the situation before November, it’s going to be atrocious,” Monica Palmer, a Republican and chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, told Bridge Michigan. 

“If we look at what happened in ‘16, with there only being a 10,000 spread between the two [presidential candidates], it could very well come down to a recount again in November.

Potential trouble ahead

When Rachel Frierson learned the City of Detroit needed at least 900 more election workers for the August primary, she decided to step up and volunteer to work the polls for the first time. 

Frierson, a Detroiter and director of programming at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, ran into problems from beginning to end that left her concerned about the city’s elections. 

It took two applications and a 30-minute phone call just to get signed up for a training session, Frierson said. She wrote on Facebook that training was “a mess,” and held in person when it could have been held online. The day before the Aug. 4 election, no one had told her where to work on Election Day. It took another nearly two hours on hold at the clerk’s office before someone told her.

On Election Day, two-thirds of the people she was supposed to work with didn’t show up — which she said was no surprise given her difficulty learning where to go. Even dropping off the ballots at night’s end was difficult: She said Winfrey’s office didn’t tell her she needed to bring another person with her to drop off ballots. Luckily, she bumped into another leader from her polling location on the street, and they delivered the ballots together. 

“Something has to change and make sure that she’s accountable,” Frierson said of Winfrey. “I don’t think we’re doing fine. Especially after 2016, we can’t have that happen. I’m concerned that the person who’s president right now, he’s the first person to want to challenge” the results. 

“To say we can lose because Detroit’s not counted right and it’s our largest population center — that’s a huge problem for Democrats,” she said.

Others say they remain concerned that August’s issues portend additional challenges. Detroit is the most reliable Democratic stronghold in the state and the Democratic Party — stung by the close defeat in 2016 — is determined not to let high levels of enthusiasm among supporters wane ahead of November. 

Benson and Winfrey need to listen to the stories of election workers and improve the system for the fall, Frierson suggested. 

“We’re talking about leadership from the top, which is an issue,” Frierson said. “We need to figure out a better way to get [poll workers] more supported.”

The August primary was not the first time Detroit’s election system has had errors that threaten some precincts’ ability to be recounted. 

In 2016, when Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein demanded a recount in Michigan, nearly 60 percent of Detroit precincts couldn’t be recounted. A year later, when current Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist called for a recount against Winfrey, 20 percent of the precincts couldn’t be recounted because of poll worker errors. 

In fact, complaints have abounded about Detroit’s elections for at least 20 years. Broken voting machines, power outages, missing poll books and more have fueled distrust in a fundamental component of democracy. 

“It’s really disappointing because some of these issues aren’t new with this office,” said state Sen. Stephanie Chang, a Democrat representing parts of Detroit who wrote on Twitter the day after the primary election she’s “very ready for a new Detroit city clerk.” 

She said she heard of multiple other issues with the clerk’s office ahead of the primary, including absentee ballots being mailed out the day before the election and shoddy poll worker training. 

“It just feels like with how important this year’s election is, we should really have things all together,” Chang said. “So it’s concerning.”

Many said those issues were exacerbated by the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic: Many veteran poll workers, most of whom are elderly and perhaps more vulnerable to the coronavirus, decided not to volunteer. Several others did not show up on Election Day, and the city dealt with a much higher volume of absentee ballots compared with years past. Indeed, a record 1.6 million people statewide voted absentee in the August primary (beating out the previous record of 1.27 million in the 2016 general election), including nearly 80,000 cast in Detroit. A state ballot initiative passed in 2018 that allows no-reason absentee voting in Michigan contributing to the uptick. 

“I don’t think enough consideration is being given to that fact,” said Jonathan Kinloch, Democratic vice chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. “But I hope that the clerk’s office is understanding, and I do believe that they do [know] the severity of what’s at play here.”

Kinloch noted “the election was close in 2016 and it will potentially be close in 2020 and we know that if that is the case, we most likely will have a recount here. What we don’t want is, because of our archaic recount law, to have precincts un-recountable.”

What happened — and what can be done?

Detroit’s absentee ballots are tabulated by precinct just like in-person ballots through an absentee voting counting board, a group of election workers who count absentee ballots in a location separate from the polls. The clerk’s office is required to record how many absentee ballots were mailed back and record receiving it in the individual’s voting record and in a precinct poll book. Poll books keep track of how many vote in each precinct. 

But in Detroit, the clerk’s office didn’t consistently record the number of absentee ballots that came in, said Brater, the state elections director. So when AV counting boards began counting ballots on Election Day, some were likely to be out of balance with the poll book for the precinct.  

In some cases, absentee ballots were attributed to the wrong precinct, or election inspectors were putting ballots into the wrong containers after they were scanned, Brater added. 

“It seemed like a lot of care wasn’t given in the training, or the election inspector did not understand the gravity of the work they were involved in,” Kinloch said. “It showed a lot of problems that were definitely, definitely human errors and totally, totally avoidable.”

Winfrey, the Detroit city clerk, told the Wayne County Board of Canvassers this month that the primary election problems were due to workers becoming fatigued after working 20 hours straight. She called for state lawmakers to allow election workers to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day, a request that has stalled in the Republican-led Legislature. Winfrey declined to be interviewed by Bridge for this article. 

These problems don’t mean that some votes weren’t being counted, said both Kinloch and Chris Thomas, the former state elections director who worked under both Republican and Democrat secretaries of state. Ballots must be verified before they are sent to the AV board to be counted.

“It’s not a big fraud issue,” Thomas said. “It’s more like an accounting balancing situation. And it’s done at the end of a very long day and, in the absentee arena now, obviously with a huge volume.”

But the high numbers of out-of-balance precincts means those can’t be included in a recount. Michigan’s recount law is one of the strictest in the nation and has caused issues for Detroit’s problem-plagued election system multiple times. One elections expert told Bridge in 2018 the state’s recall law is “poison” because it limits a candidate’s ability to secure a recount. 

However, that law is unlikely to change ahead of the November election. That’s why county and state canvassers are asking Benson’s office to take action.  

Brater said it’s not logistically possible for the state to run Detroit’s elections, but the department will “do whatever is necessary to enforce the election law” and will provide more help with poll worker recruitment and training ahead of the November election. The department will also plan to have at least one staff member present at the absent voter counting board this fall. 

SOS spokesperson Jake Rollow told Bridge via email that Benson already has “supervisory control” over local election officials — which the Board of State Canvassers asked her to exercise. 

“We will take necessary steps to ensure the election law is followed uniformly, while being mindful and respectful of clerks’ authority to run their local elections,” Rollow said. “We are currently reviewing data and information from the primary in order to make a plan to assist the Detroit Clerk’s office in preventing such errors in November.”

Rollow also repeated Winfrey’s plea, which is supported by Benson and other local clerks: changing state election law to allow clerks to begin processing ballots before Election Day. 

Currently, election officials have to wait until polls open on Election Day to begin processing and counting absentee ballots, which takes more time than in-person votes. In the August primary, 64 percent of total votes cast were remote. 

“We know already that many of the issues [in Detroit’s August election] relate to human error, and human error increases when people are tired, stressed or overworked,” Rollow said. 

“Because the state Legislature has failed to allow clerks and election workers to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day, many election workers in Detroit were asked to work more than 20 hours straight. It is not surprising that election workers made record-keeping mistakes under those circumstances.”

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George Hagenauer
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 9:32am

The 20 hours straight is not the issue - the issue is the lack of skilled poll workers. Where I volunteered to work the polls in another state- we could choose any number of 4 hour shifts with the idea that the last 4 hour shift would be longer. The clerk did ongoing and really good recruitment so we always had enough workers. I m not certain why out of balance precincts exist as they should be required to be in balance at the end of the day and that is just looking at the machine and book numbers. When they are out of balance it is a pain to fix them but that is the job of the lead more experienced workers at the polls. If the ballots are sealed when delivered (and the seals I have used are numbered so they can't be replaced) I am not certain why those precincts can't be used in a recount as the ballots if properly sealed can't be tampered with. That seems like a strange law.

Mary Ellen Gurewitz
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 9:35am

Voters are not disenfranchised if a precinct is not recountable. Your statement that the votes of voters in precincts that are not recountable are not counted is a serious error. If a precinct is not recountable the vote total from the poll closing is used. It is important that this error, which other media have also made, be corrected and not repeated.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 1:01pm

But isn’t that an issue? The count at the close of the poll would be when the polling place stops in-person voting? If the amount of vote-by-mail for a precinct is such that the amount is not finished being counted (envelopes opened, vote placed in appropriate places, etc) by the time in-person voting is closed, the voters of that precinct may be disenfranchised. 20hour days and poor training are the perfect storm. Why not approve prepping votes to be counted before Election Day as has been suggested?

Maureen Thomas
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 10:59am

Maybe some of the larger employers in the city of Detroit can give their employees time off to train and serve as poll workers in Detroit. Many good employers encourage their employees to participate in community focused activities. Many of the activities that these employees typically have participated in have been canceled due to Covid. I can’t think of a better alternative activity than to ensure the integrity and accuracy of our election process. It is sad that the legislature is not moving forward with legislation that would allow absentee ballots to be counted before election day given that it is clear the bulk of the voting will occur by absentee ballot. I have not heard any legitimate argument to support the legislature’s inaction.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 9:44pm

Do you think pre-counting early/absentee votes could be used to influence the walk in vote on election day?
What if the count did not reflect the polling and only one Party knew those preliminary results, could that Party make a special last minute get out the vote drive and change the results? Is that what you want in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, Saginaw, Lansing?
If you aren't willing to address such a concern, then you have justified legislative in action[with no proven action to address the concern].

middle of the mit
Tue, 09/01/2020 - 6:56pm


[[["Do you think pre-counting early/absentee votes could be used to influence the walk in vote on election day?"]]]

Who is asking to precount early/absentee votes, let alone report them before election day?

This is just asking that poll workers can start validating those ballots as they are received. And if the poll workers did put them in the machine as they came in? Who would know or report said totals before election day?

How would only one party be the only party that was able to acquire that information? Poll workers are supposed to have equal representation from both sides of the aisle, so both would be in possession of whatever data you are "worried" about.

All we are saying is that it would take a lot off of election officials and poll workers if they were allowed to do this earlier, rather than force almost 200,000,000 people to vote and others to count those votes, in the manner and expediency that you expect.

If you can't understand that, then you may not care about just and carefully run elections, while taking into account what poll workers have to go through to get those results to you in the expediency that you request. Because it seems to me that some would prefer same day results as opposed to a proper account of the totals a few days later.

This is what the election will come down to. Whether or not all ballots will be counted even after election day.

Would you like place a wager for braggers rights?

Thu, 09/03/2020 - 11:48pm

I would surely not want to be 'bragging' for being right about there being election process errors that influenced the results of the election. This article is about the past errors in one community [albeit the largest one in Michigan] and you are wanting to increase the burden on a Clerk's office and election day organization with well documented problems. You ignore the existing problems and show no concern about the potential added pressures/burden that could be created by pushing more work earlier into the process.
And at the end you seem to want the mail in ballots/absentee ballots opened early so those ballots with the walk in votes and then you talk about [" seems to me that some would prefer same day results as opposed to a proper account of the totals a few days later."]. Which is it you want early ballots opening prior to regular voting to get the mail in votes with be counted with the walk in voting or you want the vote count delayed to ensure count accuracy?

jan d
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 11:29am

If the Democrats would quit pressuring people to vote by mail a lot of the problems would be solved.

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 1:12pm

Voting in a pandemic is an unusual event. I don’t see it as Democrats pressuring people so much as offering awareness. Vote by mail holds a safe way for many residents in areas especially hard hit by Covid-19 to participate in the election without risking their own health or the health of their family. 20 hour work day, poor training, and not being able to prep ballots ahead of time add to the challenge for poll workers trying to ensuring all votes are counted accurately.

Erwin Haas
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 12:40pm

African Americans are supposed to vote Democrat, but supposing that they change, dream or leaving the plantation, vote Republican or even Libertarian. Would this then cause this degree of concern among those who think about these things?

Erwin Haas
Mon, 08/31/2020 - 12:40pm

African Americans are supposed to vote Democrat, but supposing that they change, dream or leaving the plantation, vote Republican or even Libertarian. Would this then cause this degree of concern among those who think about these things?

Tue, 09/01/2020 - 9:20am

There is absolutely NO reason to begin processing absentee ballots before election day. Michigan's law allows a person who has requested an absentee ballot to vote in person with a provisional ballot, which supersedes their absentee ballot IF the absentee ballot was received. To minimize possible cheating, double votes, and last minute recruiting of voters in key districts, absolutely no absentee ballots should be processed before the polls close on Election Day.

middle of the mit
Tue, 09/01/2020 - 7:03pm

Processing and counting are too different things. What? You think if we start counting first, then you could vote absentee and in person? If they have your absentee ballot, you are already counted, and would be refused to vote unless they found your ballot and then took it out of the counting. Do you not trust the process and checks and balances that are and have been in place for decades?


That is something that is not verified by facts or reporting, just fan fiction.

Let me know when Elon Musk has an Iron Man suit!

Maureen Thomas
Wed, 09/02/2020 - 12:14pm

What about at least beginning the process? Both the current Democrat and former Republican Secretaries of State believe this would be helpful.

At least 18 states allow mail ballot processing before Election Day, beyond just signature matching, according to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. But that doesn't mean they'll have a tabulated number ahead of the election. However, depending on the state, officials are able to open envelopes or even matching ballot numbers against poll books — giving them a head start on Election Day.

Benson's predecessor, Ruth Johnson, is now a Republican state senator who sponsored a bill that would allow clerks in cities with at least 25,000 people to begin opening ballot envelopes the Monday before the election. Ballots would have to stay in their secrecy sleeves to prevent anyone from seeing actual votes ahead of time.

As the Sterling Heights clerk notes: a lot of the time in an absentee voter counting board is committed to opening the envelopes, verifying the number, tearing the stub off and that sort of thing. If we can at least start processing early and have all of that said and done beforehand, I believe that we can be done at a reasonable hour.

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 10:39pm

It seems you are more interested in the convenience and efficiency of the Clerk/Sec of State that you are of due process.
Would you support starting the counting for in person voting an hour after the polls open election day, it would help the Clerks by more efficient? Why or why not?
It seems to me that we have always had vote counting done after the polls are closed to ensure that all votes are treated equally, that it is a process that allows both Parties to provide people to watch the process together, to verify the protocol for determining whether the ballots are spoiled or not is consistent and not short circuited for the convenience of the clerks vote counting.
Unless you are willing to propose a process that ensures that the early voting and the walking voting is treated the same then I am resistant to allowing early vote counting, even early opening of ballots, impression can created and inadvertently leaked with can cause actions to change election day actions.

middle of the mit
Thu, 09/03/2020 - 8:19pm


[[[It seems you are more interested in the convenience and efficiency of the Clerk/Sec of State that you are of due process.}}}

Why is convenience and efficiency taking away from due process? You Publicans can't decide what the definition of due process even is. You claimed when dems wanted to stop those on the no fly list from buying guns, that "Law Abiding Citizens would have their due process rights taken if they aren't able to purchase a gun right away. Except due process means that you go to a court, explain to a judge why you weren't supposed to be on the no flight list, the judge verifies your claim, and you get taken off. That is due process.

But somehow shooting or choking criminal suspects to death isn't taking someones right to due process, to go before a court and a judge and a jury of their peers to let them decide whether or not the criminal is in fact a criminal.

What you are stating is that you don't have confidence in the system the way it is, but you don't want to do anything other than make it harder to vote and easier to take eligible voters off the roles.

And even if we did start tallying votes early, why does that make your vote discriminated against as not being treated equally? You too could've voted early, but your vote on election in person will be counted the same as mine that I put in the clerks hand a day or two after I get my ballot.

S t r e a t c h A r m s t r o n g, to make it look like your vote didn't receive the same consideration as mine. Because people like you want to make your vote (in person) count more than mine (absentee).

Sun, 09/06/2020 - 9:51pm

Convenience and efficiency don't have to take away from protecting a system such as our balloting process, but when a person recommending such changes without addressing concerns about safe guards and trust then it gives the impression that the proponent of the changes for convenience and efficiency does concern themselves with the value of the whole of the system/protocol.
I made no suggestion for making it harder, I would like there to be an open conversation about the whole of the system, addressing concerns by all parties rather than a rush to change effectively ignoring the credibility of the system.
It has been pointed out that the absentee ballot protocol requires a request for a ballot by the voter, when you walk in to vote you have to sign a request for a ballot and they verify who you are. What I have heard about the mail in voting is that it is a blank mailing of ballots that requires no action on the voters part nor a means of verifying they want the ballot. It seems with all the requests for a signature and actions from resident it would not be surprising if the wrong person received a ballot, filled it out, and mailed it in. Were that to happen, it would seem to be a step in discrediting the voting process. And Maureen seems to show no concern for such situations which leads to an impression she only cares about convenience and efficiency.
It could be like the concerns of the media releasing the results of exit polls early or predicting a winner before the polls close. It would encourage individuals to take actions to influence turn out by neighborhood or membership or any other patterned response [such as creating a lie about a candidate on a highly emotional issue]. Do you doubt that if Hillary had heard how Michigan was going during election day she wouldn't have made a special push that day [well maybe not, she didn't believe Michigan, or Wisconsin or others would ever vote vote for Trump]?
I have voted absentee, but I like to vote in person [if there are people willing to die for my right to vote, I am willing to visit my polling place and vote to show a token of appreciation for their sacrifices].

Leland Ropp
Sat, 09/05/2020 - 5:12pm

I am frustrated by the poor reporting. You report that the numbers for absentee precinct counting didnt match, but nowhere do you report how big the mismatch is. If they are off by only a few per precinct or overall, it is not significant. If the mismatch is high, the implication of fraud is much greater, especially if number tabulated markedly exceeds poll book numbers