Detroit vote results sputter as Michigan election called 'great success'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Even as Michigan's Tuesday primary election was dubbed a "great success," results in Detroit lagged as three polling locations delayed opening, worker shortages plagued other sites and voters were confused by changed polling locations.

At 11 p.m. Tuesday, less than 1% of Detroit's precincts had reported results. Five days earlier, City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Elections Director George Azzouz had expressed confidence the city would process results in a timely manner. 

The problems marred what Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said was an otherwise "great success" for Michigan, as a record 1.6 million voters statewide took advantage of mail-in voting options. But Benson warned at a July 29 briefing that she anticipated complete primary election results likely wouldn't be available for one to two days following the election due to an increased number of people voting by mail.

Democratic Detroit State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo criticized the delays and confusion in Detroit, dubbing it "voter disenfranchisement' that lay at the feet of the Detroit election commission and the GOP-led Legislature.

The "hiccups" experienced Tuesday would be "devastating" in the November election, she said. 

"While this isn’t the first, second or even the third time these kinds of failures threatened Detroiters’ right to vote, it most certainly must be the last," Gay-Dagnogo said. "These systemic barriers must be eradicated before the fall election."

Benson's office deployed roughly 50 workers to the locations where openings were delayed, allowing Northwest Unity Baptist Church, Cooke School and Dixon Academy to open before or by 9 a.m. Tuesday, said Benson's spokesman Jake Rollow.

One other voting location in Flint delayed opening because of short staffing, Rollow said. The state sent six workers to help there. Polls were supposed to open at 7 a.m.

People still in line at those locations at 8 p.m. were still able to vote, as law permits, but the polling locations were not kept open longer to compensate for the late openings.

Last-minute workers were sent by the state were sent to Lake County, Benzie County and Jackson County, Rollow said. 

The 50 extra workers in Detroit were among the roughly 6,500 people recruited and deployed by the state for the first time this year to help with an anticipated shortage of election workers, many of whom were of an age considered high risk for the coronavirus, according to the Secretary of State's office. 

“We had a couple incidents in Detroit this morning where we had to open precincts late because co-workers were unable to show up," she said. "But we planned for it and actually just trained hundreds of people yesterday to back fill vacancies in the case that there were no shows.”

As of early last week, the state had sent over a list of 1,200 workers that could be used by the city of Detroit, and the city had enlisted the help of more than 100 of those. 

Also in Detroit, some voters reported they hadn't been alerted until Monday that their polling locations had changed, Rollow said. 

The change in about a dozen Detroit locations actually took place about a month ago, when the owners of various buildings usually used for voting rescinded use of the location because of fears related to the coronavirus, Rollow said. 

When Benson's office learned that some voters didn't receive notice of the changes until Monday or, in some cases, not at all, state election officials asked Winfrey's office to put up signs at the old locations explaining the change, Rollow said. 

Winfrey said her office forecast turnout for Tuesday's election at 20%, up from 13% four years ago. But she predicted the tabulation of votes would be completed sooner than usual because a union was supplying volunteers before making a cautionary comment.

"Our amazing partners have done so much to make this happen. We just pray they all show on Election Day," Winfrey said at a July 30 press conference. 

Voting official Madeline Slaughter hands a ballot to a voter at the 5th precinct on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

Absentee ballots

Coronavirus precautions and worker shortages added to the usual election day issues at polling places. But the most notable difference was the amount of voters turning to absentee ballots. 

Just before the close of polls Tuesday, clerks across the state had received nearly 1.6 million absentee ballots back after issuing more than 2 million, representing a roughly 77% return rate statewide.

MORE: See full Aug. 4 primary election results

Election co-chair Kimberly Buckner and inspector Janet Morton work on counting absentee voter ballots at the Allen Park municipal offices in Allen Park, Michigan on August 4, 2020.

The 1.59 million absentee ballots received as of Tuesday morning significantly outstrips the roughly 484,000 absentee ballots received in the August 2016 primary and surpasses the record 1.27 million absentee ballots received in the November 2016 presidential election. 

"By all accounts, today’s elections were a great success," Benson said after the close of polls Tuesday. "All of these (voting) options — making sure they’re available and voters are aware of them — are key to our success in November and were key to our success today.”

Oakland County finished counting most of it's absentee ballots by 6 p.m., but jurisdictions like Dearborn expect to be counting until at least midnight. 

Benson has warned the increase in absentee ballots, which clerks are unable to process before 7 a.m. on election day, could keep clerks working through the night and delay results by one to two days

Absentee ballots usually take more time to process because of the time it takes to verify the signature on the envelope, open the envelope and feed the ballot through the tabulator.

On Tuesday, she urged the Legislature to pass laws allowing clerks to at least pre-process ballots before the opening of polls. The allowance will be especially important in November, when absentee numbers could increase to 3 million, Benson said.

"None of us want to be the last state in November to report our results," Benson said. "What we’ve seen today is a system that’s essentially met its limits.”

The cities with the largest absentee hauls as of Monday include Detroit, where 104,322 absentee ballots were issued and 64,400 were received; Grand Rapids, where 35,734 absentee ballots were issued and 22,159 received; and Ann Arbor, where 35,101 ballots were issued and 22,178 were received. 

Jocelyn Benson, Secretary of State, holds a press conference at Pasteur Elementary School in Detroit to give an update on today's election, Tuesday,  August 4, 2020.

Clinton and Canton townships and the cities of Livonia, Sterling Heights, Warren, Farmington Hills and Lansing also ranked among the top 10 for absentee ballot requests and returns as of Monday night. 

Clerks throughout the state were reporting relatively smooth operations Tuesday morning, with fewer people at the polls and more voting by absentee, Rollow said. In fact, Rollow said, some of the only lines were at dropboxes as voters line up to drop off their absentee ballots. 

Benson spoke to Detroit voters late Tuesday morning about the COVID precautions with voting.

“When they show up, you see not a lot of crowds, not a lot of lines and a lot of protocol in place,” Benson said, standing outside her local polling station, Louis Pasteur Elementary School on the city’s southeast side. “People are wearing masks, gloves and (using) hand sanitizer to make sure that everything's going smoothly and no one has to risk their health in order to vote.”

More:Primary voters head to Michigan polls amid crowded fields, pandemic changes

Staff Writer Jasmin Barmore contributed