Detroit clerk Winfrey foresees 15% to 20% turnout in city's election

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said Thursday her office estimates 15% to 20% of the city's roughly 500,000 registered voters are expected to participate in the Nov. 2 election, a decline from four years ago.

About 21% of voters participated in the November 2017 election, officials said.

Roughly two-thirds of those voters are expected to vote absentee, Winfrey said at a press conference at the Detroit Department of Elections.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said at a Thursday press conference that her office estimates 15% to 20% of the city's voters will participate in the Nov. 2 election. It would be a decline from the 21% turnout in November 2017.

While more voters participated in the August primary than did in 2017, 14.3% compared with 13.9%, general election turnout is expected to dip compared with four years ago, said Daniel Baxter, Detroit's former director of elections who has returned to the clerk's office on a contract basis.

November 2017 was the last municipal election in Detroit before no-reason absentee voting was approved by Michigan voters in November 2018.

Despite the ease of no-reason absentee voting, fewer Detroiters are expected to cast ballots, officials said. 

"If we were taking a class on Democracy 101, and we were in chapter two, it would probably read voter turnout. And it would probably say that candidates are responsible for voter turnout," Winfrey said.

"For both the primary and the general, campaigning has been at an all-time low."

Winfrey is running for reelection and is opposed by Denzel McCampbell, who was a member of the Detroit Charter Revision Commission and is an adviser to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit.

McCampbell says civic engagement is a duty of the clerk's office, and one of Winfrey's shortcomings.

Denzel McCampbell, (r), with his manager Samantha Woll on the campaign trail on Bingham St. in Detroit.

"This is a municipal election where every seat of our city government is on the ballot, along with multiple proposals," McCampbell said. "I reject the notion that this is about candidates."

McCampbell said that if elected clerk, the office would "make sure people know what they're voting for."

He continued: "What does a city council member do? What does a state rep do? What does the Constitution say?"What would happen if I vote yes on this proposal? What happens if I vote no? We would tell people what they're voting for, but now how to vote.

McCampbell said that when campaigning, several voters he meets have called him back and asked him to explain things that appear on their ballot, particularly the three proposals. 

"We really have to get away from resting on personality politics and name recognition as ways to get folks excited," McCampbell said. "We have to get back to the core, which is civic education."

More:Detroit voters to decide citizen powers over city spending, decriminalizing psychedelics, and reparations study.

Voter-initiated Proposal E asks Detroiters if they believe the personal possession and therapeutic use of entheogenic plants like psilocybin mushrooms or peyote should be decriminalized to the fullest extent permitted under Michigan law. 

Proposal S seeks to amend a section of Detroit's City Charter to allow voters to push ordinances that include appropriating money.

Proposal R asks whether Detroit should form a committee to consider reparations for residents, 77% of whom are Black.  

Despite a 10-candidate field in the mayoral primary, about 14% of Detroiters cast a vote. Mayor Mike Duggan got 72% of those votes. 

Duggan has refused to debate challenger Anthony Adams, who won about 10% of the vote in August. 

More:Duggan wins Detroit mayoral primary; Adams to be fall opponent

There were 45 Detroit City Council candidates on the August primary ballot. 

Winfrey noted that in two Detroit City Council districts, Districts 3 and 5, incumbents Mary Sheffield and Scott Benson will run unopposed. 

More:Detroit primary ballots to feature fewer City Council races

In Districts 2 and 6, there were not enough candidates for a primary election.

Even in the race for two at-large, citywide council seats, there were five candidates in August, just enough to trigger a primary. 

More:Scandals plague two Detroit at-large council candidates as election looms

Winfrey herself is trying to win a fifth term as city clerk. In the August primary, she won 71% of the vote. McCampbell finished second with 15%. 

Asked if she had, as a candidate, done her job to inspire voter turnout, Winfrey declined to comment.

"I cannot, in this building, put on that other hat" as a candidate, Winfrey said. "In this building, I am city clerk and I will act accordingly."

Several candidates on the November ballot have cited voter apathy as a concern. Almost all have said they regularly meet Detroiters who don't even know there's an election on Nov. 2.

Baxter explained that presidential elections get the highest turnout. In November 2020, 62% of the 1.4 million registered voters in Wayne County voted. 

"Then you have gubernatorial, and then you have municipal elections," Baxter said. "And unfortunately municipals are usually the lowest in terms of voter turnout and voter engagement."