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Security ‘beefed up 100%’ at Detroit absentee counting board after 2020 chaos

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey holds a Thursday, July 28, 2022, press conference on election procedures for the upcoming Aug. 2 primary from the city’s Central Counting Board at Huntington Place in Detroit, Mich. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said security measures will be tightened Tuesday at the city’s Central Counting Board in response to “shenanigans” during the 2020 presidential election to disrupt election workers tasked with counting absentee ballots.

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Winfrey, who also presided over the 2020 election, said her office has “beefed up security 100 percent” for Tuesday’s primary election. Poll challengers, reporters and election workers will be required to show ID, sign affidavits of identity and pass through metal detectors before entering the basement in Huntington Place and 20 police officers will be assigned to keep watch over the count.

Winfrey said the goal is to prevent a repeat of the chaos of the last presidential election, where procedural concerns and allegations of fraud raised by Republican poll challengers escalated into a crowd of protesters attempting to stop the city from counting absentee ballots.

“We feel pretty secure and we feel pretty safe,” Winfrey said during a Thursday press conference. “We always engage all political parties to participate in the process, because we believe that if you participate in the process, if you go through the training, you have a better understanding of what goes on and you understand why certain things happen. We follow the law to the letter and everything we do is guided by Michigan Election Law.”

Winfrey expects 12 percent to 17 percent of registered voters in Detroit will cast a ballot in the primary, which features a Republican gubernatorial race, heated contests between Democrats in two congressional districts and a full slate of races for legislative seats, Wayne County Executive, Wayne County Sheriff and other local positions. The projected turnout is lower than the 2018 primary election, where 22 percent of registered voters participated. 

“I think voters get tired,” Winfrey said when asked why turnout on Aug. 2 could be lower. “They get tired of the stuff that’s going on, the infighting, the name-calling, they just get tired … and they get a little apathetic toward the whole process.”

Winfrey is running for Congress in Michigan’s newly-drawn 12th District. Voters in the Democratic primary will choose between Winfrey and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, Lathrup Village Mayor Kelly Garrett and former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson. 

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Winfrey said the turnout projection was partially based on absentee ballot requests, which are being viewed statewide as an indicator of voter enthusiasm. Michigan voters have largely embraced the convenience of voting early by mail since the adoption of no-reason absentee voting in 2018. 

As of Monday, 46,273 Detroit voters requested an absentee ballot, by far the most of any municipality in Michigan. But only 9 percent of Detroit’s 503,660 registered voters applied for an absentee ballot, well below the statewide average of 15 percent. 

More Detroiters are voting by mail in this primary compared to 2018, before the adoption of universal mail-in voting. Detroiters have turned in 21,002 absentee ballots as of Monday, compared to the 19,875 absentee ballots submitted a week before polls closed in 2018. 

There are 25,381 absentee ballots that were mailed to Detroit voters but not turned in to clerks as of Monday, according to the Michigan Secretary of State. Detroit’s return rate of 45 percent is slightly below the statewide average of 47 percent and sits toward the bottom of 20 Michigan cities with the largest number of registered voters. Other large cities like Grand Rapids, Lansing and Dearborn all have return rates over 50 percent. Sterling Heights and Warren have return rates at just under 60 percent. 

Daniel Baxter, a former Detroit elections director who is overseeing the absentee ballot counting process, said he expects all votes to be counted by around 4 a.m. Absentee ballots returned to clerks on Election Day must be sent to the Central County Board to be processed when polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. 

In 2020, some Republican poll challengers complained that social distancing requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from being able to observe the count. 

Chris Thomas, who served as Michigan elections director until 2017 and is now a consultant for Detroit, said face masks will be mandatory on Tuesday, but poll challengers will not be required to stay six feet apart. 

Thomas said poll challengers will be assigned a quadrant of tables to oversee, which is meant to prevent groups of partisans from wandering around the room. Thomas said in 2020, loose rules on where challengers could go contributed to a “chaotic” environment. 

“None of that is going to happen,” Thomas said.

Another major complaint from Republicans in 2020 centered around a perception that GOP poll challengers and election workers were not given equal access to participate in Detroit. 

Winfrey said she worked with the Michigan Republican Party and Michigan Democratic Party to train election workers. Winfrey said 264 people recommended by the GOP were assigned to the Central Counting Board and 129 are working at precincts around the city. 

Twenty ballot drop boxes and 13 satellite voting centers are available throughout the city for voters to turn in their absentee ballots. See a full list of locations here. Winfrey said the drop boxes are checked daily and monitored by cameras. 

Baxter said one upside of a low-turnout primary is that it gives election officials an opportunity to perfect their operations for the general election in November. 

The races are the first to use new political district maps created by an independent redistricting commission. The result of 2020 census population estimates caused Michigan to lose one seat in Congress and created changes for voting precincts in Detroit, where census estimates showed a population decline of 10.5 percent. Baxter said the city was forced to shed 53 precincts.

“When we lose representation and population, that always has an impact on our precincts,” Baxter said. “The law provides that we should have approximately no more than 2,999 registered voters at any given precinct. If you look at Detroit precincts, our average is about 1,500 registered voters per precinct.”

Baxter said the city sent notifications to registered voters about which precinct they fall under earlier this year. Voters can use the Michigan Voter Information Center to learn where their polling place is, view a sample ballot, verify their voter registration and track their absentee ballot status.

Voter registration applications are available in multiple languages online, including ArabicBengaliBurmeseHindiKoreanMandarin and Spanish.

Friday is the last day for voters to request an absentee ballot be mailed to them. Voters have until 5 p.m. Friday to submit completed ballots to their clerk through the mail. Voters can still obtain an absentee ballot in person up to 4 p.m. on Monday, the day before the election, but they must fill out their ballot and turn it in at the clerk’s office. 

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