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Suit seeks required training sessions for Detroit election workers

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Highland Park activist Robert Davis has filed a new lawsuit asking the courts to require Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office to provide training for Detroit election workers after widespread problems tracking ballots in the city's primary.

Filed this week, the lawsuit by Davis, Detroit resident Brenda Hill and Republican Wayne County prosecutor hopeful Shane Anders says state law requires Michigan's elections director to conduct a training session for Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey and election inspectors who plan to work the Nov. 3. election.

Robert Davis

About 72% of the absentee voting precincts in Detroit's primary election had ballot totals that didn't match the number of ballots listed in poll books, The Detroit News reported last week.

This situation would likely mean  — under state law — those precincts couldn't be recounted in a close race, which is driving concerns among officials for the general election. President Donald Trump won the state by 10,704 votes in 2016, his narrowest margin of victory nationally.

Davis said he's concerned that problems with administering the election in Michigan's largest city will cause the November election to be challenged.

"That is my whole point in trying to get these errors corrected prior to this election," said Davis, who frequently takes government officeholders to court.

Hill ran for state House in the Aug. 4 primary, losing by 1,131 votes. She wanted to pursue a recount but said it isn't worthwhile because of the large number of precincts that can't be recounted.

“I can’t get that justice because of the problems with the absentee votes," Hill said.

The new lawsuit filed in the Michigan Court of Appeals says it's "apparent from documented errors" in the Aug. 4 primary that Jonathan Brater, Michigan's elections director, "must conduct" training sessions with the Detroit city clerk, her staff and appointed election inspectors before the Nov. 3 election.

The suit lists Brater and Benson as the defendants. The Michigan Secretary of State's Office and the Wayne County Clerk's Office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Virgil Anderson of Detroit fills out his absentee ballot at a satellite voting location on the campus of Wayne County Community College NW district, Friday, July 31, 2020 in Detroit.

The suit also asks a judge to compel Benson to "advise and direct" Detroit city election officials in the "proper methods" of conducting and counting votes for the Nov. 3 election. The plaintiffs in the case "have a legal right to the performance of the specific duty" by the secretary of state, the lawsuit says.

On Monday, the Board of State Canvassers, a board of two Democrats and two Republicans, approved language that seeks to require Benson to exercise her supervisory control power over the general election in Detroit.

The board didn't provide details on what that would specifically look like but is hoping to receive regular updates from Benson's office on what's happening in Detroit.

In a Monday interview, Benson, a Democrat from Detroit, said her efforts wouldn't focus on just the state's largest city. The Secretary of State's office is going to do a "deep dive" in the coming days to identify additional ways to support multiple cities across Michigan as they prepare for a surge of absentee voting this fall, she said.

"I am confident that we’re going to have record turnout this fall and the results of our elections are going to be accurate,” Benson said.

Winfrey, Detroit's city clerk, has connected problems in the primary election to long hours on the job by election workers and a surge in absentee ballots.

cmauger@detroitnews.com