Detroit reps rip clerk’s ‘shameful’ election oversight

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Members of the Michigan House Democratic Caucus on Friday called for an operational overhaul in City Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office a day after a state audit report highlighted an “abundance of human errors” by poll workers in Detroit’s Nov. 8 election.

The Bureau of Elections reviewed Detroit election results after a Wayne County canvass revealed discrepancies in the number of voters and ballots in 392 precincts. Auditors examined 136 of the worst precincts but found “no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” or voting machine error — only a series of mistakes by precinct workers and receiving boards.

“This kind of negligence is absolutely unacceptable,” state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said in a statement. “Yes, everyone makes mistakes. But these mistakes, in aggregate, called into question the integrity of this election — one of the most critical elections in modern history. That is shameful.”

Winfrey, who has not publicly discussed the audit since it was released Thursday, answered a phone call from The Detroit News on Friday but declined to immediately discuss the state findings.

“I’m at the shop right now,” she said. “I’ll call you back later.”

Winfrey and Detroit Elections Director Daniel Baxter initially blamed some of the election irregularities on aging voting machines. Winfrey suggested in late January the then-unfinished state audit was “vindicating the Detroit Department of Elections of any wrongdoing” but said it had prompted her to expand training for poll workers.

“That work needs to be done on the front end,” Gay-Dagnogo, vice chair of the Detroit caucus, told The Detroit News on Friday.

She argued Winfrey should have reached out to her and other state legislators ahead of the election if her office needed help preparing for Nov. 8.

“I do think she needs major improvement, and the department needs major improvement, and I look forward to seeing some type of a report in that regard to how these types of failure — these breaches, if you will — will be addressed moving forward,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

As clerk, Winfrey is the city’s chief elections officer and chairs the Detroit Election Commission, which includes Council President Brenda Jones and Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell. Winfrey ran for the U.S. House last year but lost in the Democratic primary to incumbent Rep. John Conyers of Detroit.

Republican President Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton, who prevailed in Detroit 95 percent to 3 percent. Some of the Detroit discrepancies were discovered during a partial statewide hand recount requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Auditors reviewed the “worst of the worst” precincts in Detroit and examined nearly 600 questionable votes. After further analysis, they could explain all but 216 votes, resulting in an error rate of about 0.08 percent out of the 250,000 votes cast in Detroit.

Election Commission leaders have a responsibility ensure a smooth election, including appropriate training of precinct workers, Gay-Dagnogo said.

“I am standing in support of protecting the voting rights of all citizens, I don’t care what party you belong to,” she said. “Right now there is a huge lack of trust in the community with respect to the Detroit Election Commission.”

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said this week she is directing state staff to work closely with Detroit election workers to make worker training and recruitment programs more effective. They now will be trained for election work once every three months instead of the old practice of getting one training session right before the election.

The state said Winfrey’s office has “done a commendable job” of reaching out to large employers and encouraging their employees to work Detroit polls on Election Day. But it recommended the city make similar efforts with colleges, universities and professional associations to “expand the talent pool” of qualified workers.

Two other members of the House Democratic Detroit Caucus joined Gay-Dagnogo in calling for an overhaul of the city clerk’s office, with an emphasis on better training and closer inspection of election facilities.

“Attention to detail and proficiency in our electronic voting systems in these circumstances is vital to protecting the integrity of our elections,” state Rep. Stephanie Chang said in release. “People will not trust their elected official to represent them appropriately if they cannot trust that their votes even mattered in the first place.”

Citizens “deserve better,” said Rep. LaTanya Garrett, who pledged Detroit legislators “will fight to ensure that they receive it come the next election.”