Detroit to 'beef up' security for absentee ballot counting in Tuesday's primary

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

Detroit election workers and others will have added layers of security on Election Day next week, as the city plans to bolster protections for its absentee counting site following the chaos during the 2020 election, when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the downtown operation.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey announced during a news conference Thursday increased security measures planned at Detroit’s Huntington Place, formerly TCF Center, where dozens of election workers will be stationed to process ballots during Tuesday's primary.

“As a result of the various issues that resulted from the 2020 election, we’ve heightened our security efforts at the precincts and here at the central counting boards,” Winfrey said inside the large exhibition room at Detroit's riverfront convention center, where absentee ballots will be counted Tuesday.

Ballot counting at the convention center on the morning after the 2020 general election erupted in chaos when protesters tried to get inside the exhibition hall room where election workers were still tabulating a record number of absentee ballots while Michigan's results in the presidential contest between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden were still too close to call. Biden defeated Trump by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points in the state.

On the afternoon after the 2020 election, while ballots were still being counted, Detroit police officers barred Republican and Democratic poll challengers from entering the room where Detroit ballots were being counted inside the convention center.

Ballot challengers and others stand outside the ballot counting area after several windows were blocked, causing anger, as both Republican and Democratic challengers were barred by city police officers from entering the TCF Center where thousands of absentee votes were being counted in Detroit, Wednesday afternoon, November 4, 2020.

For Tuesday's primary, election workers will enter the building through a specific entrance, while media and other observers will be required to use the east entrance of the building. Metal detectors will also be set up at the entrances, while attendees will be asked to present identification and sign an affidavit upon entering the building, Winfrey said.

Additional police officers will also be deployed downtown, with 20 stationed inside Huntington Place, Winfrey said.

“We’ve beefed up security 100% from 2020,” Winfrey said, standing in front of orderly rows of voting tabulators and counting tables. 

Aghogho Edevbie, the state director for the national nonpartisan voting rights organization All Voting Is Local, called the efforts to increase security at Huntington Place a “necessary step.” 

“I think that we've learned, unfortunately, from 2020, that there are bad actors out there who are determined to undermine our elections,” said Edevbie, noting that the ballot counting process has been a central focus of those efforts. “It’s important that these counting sites, including the (absentee voter) counting board and Huntington Place, be secure.” 

The hardening of critical electoral sites may feel like a loss to some, but it’s a necessary adjustment to current circumstanceshe said, .

“I think everything that's happened in the last couple of years is sad, but I think it's also important to realize that we have persevered,” he said.

Detroit’s elections director Daniel Baxter said the counting operation will consist of two shifts, with each shift manned by about 600 election workers.

Baxter said they expect to process around 40,000-45,000 absentee ballots and anticipate finishing that process in the early morning hours on Wednesday, Aug. 3. Polls close at 8 p.m. on election day.

He also reiterated the added security measures that will be in place.

“No person will be allowed entry into this building until we have verified that they should be here … to ensure that we don’t have any problems,” said Baxter, adding that they “anticipate the day to be very smooth.”

When asked about the potential that people might try to disrupt the counting process, Winfrey acknowledged it’s something that has been front of mind.

“Since 2020 that’s been a concern, I know that you guys probably know that I was threatened, half my staff here was threatened, for doing our jobs,” said Winfrey, who is on Tuesday's ballot herself as a Democratic candidate in the 12th Congressional District.

“But at the end of the day that’s the reason why we’ve beefed up security," Winfrey added. "And, as a result, I think people know not to try the shenanigans that people tried in 2020 or they will be dealt with.”

Edevbie also sought to reassure voters.

“There is a process and there are safeguards to ensure the safety of voters, and they should feel confident to cast their ballots this August and this November,” he said. 

“I would say to any voter who is out there, that you all have a civic duty to be involved in our democracy and that we should not allow anyone to intimidate us and prevent us from exercising our right to vote.”

KRuble@detroitnews.com