Detroit Clerk expects 20% voter turnout during pandemic

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — City Clerk Janice Winfrey and her team anticipate an increase in voter turnout for the upcoming primary election and rejected rumors Thursday of voter fraud coming from the White House.

The four-term clerk indicated the primary election could determine how many Detroiters return for the November general election as voters see how the clerk's office handles public health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. Election officials are tentatively estimating Nov. 3 turnout at more than 50%.

"We are administering an election during a pandemic," Winfrey said. "How safe our workers and voters feel will determine if they return in the fall."

Early absentee ballot returns and other estimates indicate a 20% voter turnout or about 100,000 city voters for the August primary, an increase from the 13% participation rate four years ago, Detroit Director of Elections George Azzouz said.

The clerk's office expects about 40,000 voters to show up in person at the 503 precincts on Tuesday. Twenty new locations were moved from Detroit public schools that are currently offering summer school to keep children safe.

The vast majority of the votes are going to be cast by absentee ballot because of COVID-19.

Despite the larger turnout, Azzouz expects the clerk's office will complete tabulations on Election Night, which would be sooner than normal. 

But Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Wednesday she expects complete primary election results likely won’t be available for one to two days following the election because an increased number of people are voting by mail. Nearly 2 million absentee voter ballots had been requested for the primary across the state by Tuesday, with a little more than 900,000 returned, according to Benson's office.

In Detroit, about 50,000 absentee ballots have been returned. The clerk's office expects another 10,000 absentee ballots to be returned by Election Day.

"This is the most we will ever have," Azzouz said about the absentee ballots. "Four years ago, we had 27,000 returned. We've already surpassed that and doubled it."

During the last week of May, Detroit's 483,000 registered voters were mailed absentee applications from Benson's office. The Detroit clerk's office mailed out an additional 95,000 absentee applications Wednesday.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey discusses primary elections  at her offices Thursday alongside polling nurses and the director of elections.

There were about 20,000 duplicate absentee applications returned because multiple organizations mailed out the reminders, and many voters filled out both, Azzouz said. 

This week, President Donald Trump suggested a “delay” to the Nov. 3 presidential election, as he alleged in a tweet that increased mail-in voting would result in vote fraud.

"It's a form of voter suppression," Winfrey said. "When you put fear into people they have a tendency to not move. That's a form of voter suppression and is to be ignored because there is no evidence that in the City of Detroit voter fraud has ever taken place with absentee voting or any other voting."

Preparing for primary

But problems are looming. The Detroit clerk's office has received a notice from U.S. Postal Service that it couldn't guarantee mail-in absentee ballots would be delivered by Aug. 4 and is encouraging residents to drop off their votes at one of the seven vote centers spread throughout the city.

There are two drop boxes for absentee votes at City Hall and the clerk's office on West Grand Boulevard.

"Everyone's mail is late, your bills are late," Winfrey said. "If you have a ballot or are expecting a ballot, you need to drop it off at one of our vote centers, one of the two drop boxes. The postmaster has guaranteed any that are found after Aug. 4 will be brought to us."

The office is also piloting two drive-through voting precincts at Winans Academy and Providence Church only for residents in those precincts. 

"The two sites weren't comfortable with opening, but we needed those precincts open so we said let's try drive-through voting," Winfrey said. "One of our runners will get their driver's license, hand them a ballot, they'll complete that in their car, and come out only to feed the tabulator, which will be near the entrance. If it works out well, there will be more in November."

In recognition of the dangers of COVID-19, the clerk's office will have six nurses on call throughout the city. Election workers will be temperature checked throughout the day as well as be required to wear masks and shields for protection.

Masks are not required for voters, but each precinct will distribute personal protection equipment and have a sanitizing station, Winfrey said.

There will be 3,000 polling volunteers this year who are younger than those in prior years, and many have been furloughed from city jobs. The Service Employees International Union has provided 1,000. The clerk's office has secured hazard pay of at least $50 on top of hourly pay for the poll workers.

"Our amazing partners have done so much to make this happen. We just pray they all show on Election Day," Winfrey said.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_