Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey is touting an overhauled voting system in her bid for re-election as challenger Garlin Gilchrist says the incumbent’s November 2016 election mishaps are a sign that someone else should take over the reins.
Political observers said this year’s face-off is the most competitive city clerk race since Winfrey defeated longtime clerk Jackie Currie in 2005. Like Gilchrist now, Winfrey then was a political novice. She defeated Currie following allegations about irregularities in absentee ballots, legal challenges and an announced FBI investigation into possible voter fraud.
Gilchrist criticized Winfrey by calling the November 2016 election a “complete catastrophe” and saying the clerk’s office has failed at record keeping. A state audit released in February revealed that an “abundance of human errors” caused mismatched vote totals that resulted in 216 questionable votes, a development that put Detroit in the national spotlight.
Winfrey maintains that her accomplishments speak volumes after nearly 12 years in office and that Detroiters should “vote for trusted experience.”
Incumbent clerks usually are favored to win, but Gilchrist has increased his competitiveness by out raising Winfrey between August and October. He collected $115,000 to Winfrey’s $13,500, according to campaign finance reports. That was in addition to the nearly $102,000 Gilchrist raised before the primary, when the incumbent logged in $12,000.
Gilchrist’s aggressive fundraising and grassroots campaign with television and radio appearances have increased his popularity, said Ed Sarpolus, a Target Insyght pollster. If he keeps the momentum, there’s a chance Gilchrist could win, Sarpolus said.
“Typically the undecided tend to lean toward the challenger,” he said.
Winfrey won the August primary with 51 percent of the vote, trailed by Gilchrist at 19 percent and former Detroit NAACP executive director Heaster Wheeler at 13 percent. Wheeler has endorsed Gilchrist.
Winfrey, 59, takes credit for cleaning up the city’s voter files, creating an archives division that stores ordinances and other city records in digital or print format, and recently launching a system that sends ballot receipts to absentee voters. She also touted the city’s satellite voting locations that allow voters to cast absentee ballots up to one month prior to elections.
“I’ve had to do more with less as we navigated through the bankruptcy,” Winfrey told The Detroit News, referring to the city’s July 2013 bankruptcy filing from which the city emerged at the end of 2014.
Gilchrist, a 35-year-old computer engineer, said he wants to make the clerk’s office social media savvy, increase voter turnout through more community outreach and promote easier access to public records. He said he designed Detroit’s “open data portal” when he worked as the city’s technology director.
“My philosophy is that we can’t leave anybody behind,” he said. “We cannot leave any Detroiter off the table. It’s about using every available means to reach a potential voter.”
Winfrey under fire
Winfrey, a former middle school math teacher, came under fire in 2016 when the Michigan Bureau of Elections audited 136 of the city’s most irregular precincts— “the worst of the worst,” it said — after a Wayne County canvass showed “significant discrepancies” in the number of voters and ballots in 392 Detroit precincts.
The audit concluded there was “no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” or voting machine error — attributing the problems to a series of mistakes by precinct workers and receiving boards. Winfrey still partially blamed the issues on outdated voting machines.
She also said Michigan’s recount law is “antiquated” because it bars recounts for unbalanced precincts or ones with broken seals, which happened in 10.6 percent of precincts statewide in 2016.
“It was a travesty for the entire state,” Winfrey said.
After the audit, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson directed the city to make “needed changes to poll worker training and recruitment efforts.”
But Winfrey said it was her office that decided to beef up poll worker training. Poll supervisors are now trained quarterly, as opposed to once before each election, she said.
“The lesson learned was we must focus on the quality of poll workers and not the quantity of poll workers,” Winfrey said. “We were so wanting to address those long lines that President Obama told us to deal with.”
State elections staff put an “additional focus” on Detroit this year, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. In the spring and summer, state officials reviewed the city’s training materials and attended precinct worker training sessions before the August primary, he said.
“We have been pleased with the city’s cooperation and how the August election was run,” Woodhams said.
The city also received new voting machines earlier this year that election officials say work more efficiently. In the August primary, 85 percent of Detroit’s precincts performed perfectly, Winfrey said.
Still, Gilchrist said the clerk’s office should have been more proactive.
“I don’t think it should have taken the state of Michigan to tell the city clerk to serve the voters better,” he said.
Gilchrist vows to implement more training sessions for poll workers that accommodate different learning styles. For example, he suggested take-home materials and online videos.
If elected, Gilchrist said he would use his technology experience to update clerk’s office data and information systems and ensure that all records are current.
Some voters, he said, are concerned with recent correspondence from Winfrey’s office.
In one instance, residents received a letter requesting an absentee ballot application for the general election and then two days later — without yet filing the application — they received an absentee ballot, Gilchrist said.
This causes some to lose faith in the voting process, he said.
“Right now what voters are getting from the city clerk’s office is chaos,” Gilchrist said. “They are getting confusing information, confusing letters, inadequate training that’s leading to poor results and low voter turnout.”
Winfrey suggested concerned voters go to their polling location and physically vote or go to a satellite voting location and get help. “The important thing is they ended up with their ballot,” she said.
As for voters who have lost trust in the city’s voting system, Winfrey encouraged them to become poll workers.
“That’s the best way that you’re going to understand the process,” she said.