Inside Detroit’s election: Black women’s stories of the count and the mayhem
More than 250,000 Detroit voters participated in last week’s election. That’s almost 50 percent of the registered voters in the city, and just below the voter participation rate in 2008, when Barack Obama won his first term as president.
Hundreds of volunteers were needed to run precincts, count ballots, challenge ballot validity, and run an efficient vote count process from Monday to early Thursday morning. Joe Biden took the lead early Wednesday morning while votes were still being counted. Republican challengers rushed to the TCF Center that afternoon to attempt to stop the vote count but were prevented from entering the counting center. Now, those who do not like the election’s outcome have filed lawsuits alleging voter and counting fraud. While scenes of Trump supporters trying to enter the vote count center have flooded social media, the story of how those votes were counted amid the commotion has yet to be told.
BridgeDetroit met with several Black women who worked in various roles at the TCF Center throughout election week: Sarida Scott, Brandy Robinson, Cynthia Cox Bonds, Katrina Dunigan and Chiara Clayton. Here, they recount their experiences and provide personal reflections to help Detroiters move forward.
The following includes portions of interviews that have been shortened and edited for clarity.
Sarida Scott: ‘I feel protective of my people’
Name: Sarida Scott
Role at TCF: Volunteer challenger at TCF on Wednesday and also volunteered at a westside precinct on Election Day.
BridgeDetroit: When you got (to TCF Center) on Wednesday, what were you thinking about and what did you think of what was happening?
Scott: I had no idea what to expect. I have to share that this was really eye-opening for me. As I said, I’ve worked a lot on elections and campaigns. We’ve always been so focused on the front end, getting out the votes, it never occurred to me how much was needed to actually protect the vote. When I got there, and saw all of the workers doing their job, I checked in to find out what was needed. Essentially, (I was needed) to balance out Republican challengers that were there.
BridgeDetroit: What did you think of all the challengers who were there, whether they were Republican, Democrat, or nonpartisan?
Scott: I was pretty shocked. One, (there were) so many Republican challengers, and again, I understand the system. I am fine with recognizing that there is a process and it should be a fair process. I certainly support that. And that means there are a lot of Republican challengers, Democratic challengers, they have the ability to witness and to note their challenge.
What they don’t have the ability to do is stop the process. What I was trying to do is make sure that the workers felt like they were able to continue doing their job. My focus was on making sure that every vote counted.
I was surprised by the level of aggression that I saw from some of the Republican challengers. I became angered when they were demanding entry. Certainly, I thought it was intimidating and threatening, and a violation of the law. Not in keeping with the process. Sometimes they weren’t following the guidelines, they weren’t respecting the space of the workers. They weren’t following the procedures, which was just one challenger per table.
“I was surprised by the level of aggression that I saw from some of the Republican challengers. I became angered when they were demanding entry. Certainly, I thought it was intimidating and threatening, and a violation of the law.” – Sarida Scott
This level of privilege (angered me), that they can just come to Detroit. There’s always this assumption that the count is not being managed well, and that they have the right to do what they want.
BridgeDetroit: You have been volunteering and participating in elections since, you said 1996? What keeps you coming back? And why?
Scott: I’m a Black woman in America. The country that is supposed to be my home kept my people from voting for years. It is, as part of my family’s history, that you take voting extremely seriously. It is a right that people fought and died for. My level of privilege? The least I can do (is) volunteer on that day to ensure — I feel protective of my people — that Detroiters’ votes count.
That’s what led me to TCF. How dare they think they’re gonna bring a bunch of people to my city to try and disenfranchise voters once again. To try and invalidate our vote. I can’t tell you how that impacts me.
BridgeDetroit: You already have a great deal of experience in this work, but what is one takeaway that you’ve learned and want to share with everyone else?
Scott: It never really occurred to me … once people have voted. We’ve been so focused on getting out the vote, I am now much more focused on protecting the vote. I guess I took it for granted, the lengths to which people would go to try to prevent people from voting at all levels
Katrina Dunigan: ‘We know what our purpose is’
Name: Katrina Dunigan
Role: Poll worker
BridgeDetroit: You were at TCF Center from Wednesday until early Thursday morning. How did the dynamics change throughout your shift, and how did you feel as you were working?
Dunigan: When we heard the banging on the windows, and they first started chanting on the inside that is what really started everything. They started chanting, ‘Stop the vote.’ This was a younger group (compared to) the Election Day group, they were more conservative. But the Wednesday challengers and poll workers were younger. And they started chanting, ‘Stop the vote, stop the vote.’ But I tell you, the City of Detroit election team, if I could just get up and bow, I would. They handled everything with professionalism, competence, I mean, they were just wonderful. That team, they didn’t engage. They weren’t provoked, but they didn’t cower. They made it clear. These are the rules, and these are the procedures, and everyone here is going to abide by them or else you’re going to have to leave this area.
They kept us encouraged. So when the chanting was going on, they got on the mic every now and then and they would say, ‘Stay focused, keep working.’ And we did. They would hype us up and say, ‘Are you with me?’ We’re like, yeah!’ ‘You with me?’ ‘Yeah!’ ‘You with me?’ ‘Yeah!’ We were determined that we were going to do our jobs, and no one was going to stop that.
We were also determined, I know amongst our section, that we were going to present the best face of Detroit that we could. We were determined that if you have anything negative to say, it’s a lie. Because we are here. We know what our purpose is. We had a calling to be there and to get the job done professionally and thoroughly. That was our focus.
“When we heard the banging on the windows, and they first started chanting on the inside that is what really started everything. They started chanting, ‘Stop the vote.’” – Katrina Dunigan
BridgeDetroit: Do you see yourself becoming more or less involved, politically and civically after this?
Dunigan: Yes, for sure. How can I be more engaged? I don’t know, I mean, years ago, I was a member of the NAACP. But I haven’t been a member in a number of years. I think and I know that I should be. I don’t know if that’s the first step, but that is a step. … It has really encouraged me and made me aware that you do as much as you can for as long as you can. And that’s what I intend to do: as much as I can for as long as I can. But I’m glad that I had the experience. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything, even with all the hoopla that occurred. Everybody has a right to be heard.
- 2020 Michigan election: results, voting, polls, Joe Biden, Donald Trump
- How Biden won, even as much of Michigan went for Trump: 5 election takeaways
- As Biden defeats Trump, GOP launches inquiry into Michigan election
Brandy Robinson: ‘We need to do a better job of engaging our community’
Name: Brandy Robinson
BridgeDetroit: Detroit had a significant voter turnout, and people now say we need to mobilize and get together. What do you think the Detroit community should change and mobilize around?
Robinson: I think one big thing that’s important is that there’s all this attention from political groups and community groups around election time. But I think people, who really care about the city and who live here, want to see that investment all the time.
We need to do a better job of engaging with the community on a regular basis so that people don’t feel like you’re just showing up to ask for their support or to lecture or harass them into voting when you haven’t shown that you’ve really cared outside of that process.
I think that needs to change. All the infrastructure that gets put into making sure people vote and vote for their candidates really could be used on a regular basis to make sure that basic services are being met, that people’s needs are being addressed (and) make sure that the community is taken care of. (The) energy needs to exist around the clock, not just around election time.
BridgeDetroit: Is there anything in particular you’d like to share about this experience?
Robinson: I have never, in my 43 years, experienced what I’m going to call the angry white mob that you see in the history books. The people who are standing at the entrance to the schools that were trying to be integrated, and actively arguing with anger and hostility towards children. People who were against busing. People who were against integration. I mean, they were just angry. You can look at the pictures and tell. I had never experienced that. This was my first taste of it. And baby, let me tell you, that is something — it’s powerful. It is negative and it undermines the fabric of this democracy.
People try to act like, ‘Well, I’m just here to observe the rule of law.’ No, you’re not. You came down here with a specific agenda. Because you have these preconceived ideas about what’s about to happen. You were going to assert that on a group of people who you thought were just gonna lay down and take it, but it’s a different day. I was proud of the response of Detroiters, of those Black women and Black men who stood up to make sure that that wasn’t gonna happen. Not in our city, not on our watch, not today. So it just made me understand that that’s a big part of America (in) 2020. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about how much progress we think we’ve made, because the angry white mob is still there and they’re ready.
“I was proud of the response of Detroiters, of those Black women and Black men who stood up to make sure that that wasn’t gonna happen. Not in our city, not on our watch, not today.” – Brandy Robinson
BridgeDetroit: You’re a lawyer. Do you think that having that background, having that knowledge already, prepared you for this?
Robinson: It did. Because, number one, and I know this because of my training, if somebody comes to you and says, ‘Hey, look, this is what’s wrong,’ the burden is on them to explain why it’s wrong, present the evidence, and persuade whoever the listener is that what they’re saying should be followed.
So when you stand in the air, and a challenger is saying, ‘Well, look, I want to place an objection to this ballot,’ and you’re like, ‘On what basis?’ and they don’t have a basis that’s unique and particularized, based on that particular ballot, you know that it’s nonsense, right? So you can quickly and efficiently say, ‘We oppose that challenge. Let’s move on to the next one.’
I’m a public defender, so we are always having to fight back and swim upstream to have people here. So I don’t have any difficulty at all steppin’ to people who were crossing the line, who were being out of order, and asserting myself and saying, ‘Listen, this is not proper.’ I feel like just being trained to be in that kind of space gave me all the empowerment that I needed. I feel like other legal observers would have said the same thing.
Cynthia Cox Bonds: ‘Fraud? How?’
Name: Cynthia Cox Bonds
Role: Floor supervisor
BridgeDetroit: What is a floor supervisor?
Cox Bonds: Basically, you are in charge of two tables of (poll) workers who are actually working the ballots. We run intervention, we answer questions. If there’s problems coming up of any sort, we have to answer, answer and help the inspectors with any of the problem ballots.
BridgeDetroit: You were at TCF for multiple days, or shifts, right? What did you see while you were there?
Cox Bonds: There were two shifts of workers, one was Team A, and one was Team B. I was on Team A, and we came in and worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Monday. We were processing ballots. We were not tabulating the ballots, but we were processing the ballots. Then we came in on Tuesday evening, from 8 p.m. and we worked until 5 a.m. Wednesday morning.
One table, by the end of our shift, had maybe 800 ballots, and the other table, they maybe only processed like 500. It really depended on the precincts that you had. Some precincts had closer or over 3,000 ballots.
The things that we check for: Is it signed? Was it signed for the correct election date? Was it the correct precinct? Was the name actually in the electronic poll book? We had to make sure that the actual (tabulation) was correct and matched up with the electronic poll book. Then you have to make sure it wasn’t torn or the ovals were filled out correctly, meaning that they were actually still filled in. We honestly did not have many issues at all. …
I would say there were not many Democratic challengers, the majority of them were Republican challengers, and they were feeling themselves. I had to tell one lady that was watching my tables, I had to tell her several times you cannot talk to the inspectors. (She) was trying to engage the inspectors, trying to stand over them, not standing at a distance. At each table, there’s a monitor attached to the electronic poll books.
It gives them an opportunity to actually look at the information that’s being entered. They’re not supposed to ask or question any of the inspectors at the table. If they have any questions, they’re supposed to come to the supervisors, who had on black bottoms and a top that said ‘inspectors’ or ‘supervisors,’ so it wasn’t like they didn’t know who the supervisors were.
They were arrogant. I mean, one lady, she was leaning over the inspector that was processing the information through the electronic poll books and actually leaning over him. … At one point, some of them were actually, writing down voters’ names and things. At that point, I engaged one of the team leads.
BridgeDetroit: It’s now a couple of days after Election Day, what are your thoughts about your experience?
Cox Bonds: Overall, know how much work goes on behind the scenes to get these ballots ready. People (need) to understand that the challengers have always been a part of the process, but to see how hard these people were working and no one was trying to commit any fraud.
“We all start off at the beginning of each shift taking an oath. Everybody has to stand up or raise their hand for protection of what we’re doing. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication.” – Cynthia Cox Bonds
To hear the outsiders talk about, ‘There’s got to be fraud.’ I’m like, ‘How?’ I mean, there are so many steps in between that have to happen, it would take a lot for anyone to have to commit some type of fraud.
We all start off at the beginning of each shift, taking an oath. Everybody has to stand up or raise their hand for protection of what we’re doing. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication. Were we paid? Of course we were, but it wasn’t, I mean, when you put it down to the amount of time that you actually work, it’s not like it’s a lot of money. So, it is a commitment of time for the democratic process. I give a lot of kudos to (Detroit Elections Director) Daniel Baxter, who kept everybody upbeat.
Chiara Clayton: ‘I felt obligated to step up’
Name: Chiara Clayton
BridgeDetroit: How did you get involved in working at the polls and at TCF Center?
Clayton: Well, there was an all-call put out to the Divine Nine Greek organizations. I’m a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and the city clerk, Janice Winfrey, is also a member. So, they did a big push within the historically Black, Greek letter organization community in Detroit to recruit members to be able to work the polls for the absentee ballots. And they did that, I guess, because in previous elections, they had a problem recruiting people from a more professional network, to be able to be trained to work. I knew that they were anticipating a record number of absentees because of the world we’re living in with COVID and everything.
I felt obligated to step up and be a part of that process. I vote every year, of course. For whatever reason, something was tugging on me to be more involved in this process. I thought it would be nice to get involved. I never participated in an election before or worked close to the polls, and it will be historic, and I just knew it was important enough to represent. Because I do live in Detroit, I am a Detroiter.
BridgeDetroit: Many of the people we’ve spoken to have said they felt compelled to participate in the election this year. Some said it was because of specific issues they saw, while some said it was because they wanted to be more involved in the community and be a part of a solution. Are there any issues that you see in the community that could be changed or uplifted through policy or political work?
Clayton: I think that we should do a better job at educating people on what they’re voting for. There’s always a big push to vote. We always say, ‘Vote, everybody, vote, vote, vote.’ But unless you are politically aware, (you go) to the polling location to vote or to submit your absentee ballot (and) you’re not sure who or what you’re voting for. I think (we need) more emphasis on voter education. I felt a little bit more of that this go-around. …They (need to) have a better understanding of all the candidates, not just our national candidates, but local people running, and to understand these proposals that are always confusing.
Unless you take the time to read and comprehend, you don’t really know what you’re voting for. I think that is something that should be more prevalent in the voting process. It’s not just telling people to vote, but do more education with them on what they’re voting for and how to really decipher who to vote for as far as what their needs are.
BridgeDetroit: After this experience, do you see yourself volunteering to work the polls again? Does this make you want to be more active civically?
Clayton: I’ve been thinking about that. It was a great experience, because I feel like I did something bigger than myself and I was a part of the positive outcome that came from the election in Detroit. …
I see myself being more politically aware. I may participate in another election. I’m exhausted, I’m still kind of tired, and I’m like, I don’t know if I could do that again for two days. But I do see myself being more active as far as on the front end, definitely trying to educate individuals about voting: how to vote, the importance of voting and really kind of educating yourself on the process.
“I want Detroiters to really understand and to really own our power and our voice and how we are game-changers. You can’t win an election in the state of Michigan without Detroit, you can’t.” – Chiara Clayton
I may actually like to work at a polling location, and I think I would like to do one for a local election. You know, maybe like the mayoral next year within Detroit. But I definitely feel more aware as of how important the right to vote is and how voter suppression is still very real. We hear about the stories (and) we know the history. I had never witnessed it firsthand. When I did this week, just how seriously people try to really suppress people’s right to vote. Detroiters need to understand we should not ever take our power for granted. I firmly believe Detroiters are the reason why Michigan went for Biden, because we showed up. I really believe that. I want Detroiters to really understand and to really own our power and our voice and how we are game-changers. You can’t win an election in the state of Michigan without Detroit, you can’t.
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?