Detroit, Michigan secretary of state partner to ensure integrity of November election

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced a partnership Wednesday aimed at ensuring the "integrity and accessibility" of the Nov. 3 election in the state's largest city.

The partnership comes after recorded ballot counts in 72% of Detroit's absentee voting precincts didn't match the number of ballots cast in the Aug. 4. primary. The out-of-balance totals mean the precincts' results likely couldn't be recounted in a close race under state law and spurred the Michigan Board of State Canvassers last month to ask Benson to oversee the city's election.

The new collaboration will involve hiring staff to support the city clerk's office — including Chris Thomas, who was Michigan's elections director for more than 30 years, as a senior adviser — and revising protocols for ballot counting and sorting, according to a press release.

"Democracy is a team sport and as a longtime resident of the city of Detroit I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Clerk Winfrey to ensure she has all the support she needs as her team prepares for the culmination of one of the most challenging election cycles in modern history," said Benson, a Democrat from Detroit. “We are all in this together and will work collaboratively with her office, the City of Detroit, and Wayne County to ensure every vote is counted and our elections are secure."

The Detroit Red Wings, Tigers, Pistons and Lions will work with Detroit officials to promote voter education, give their staffers Election Day off to serve as election workers and use their arenas to support election administration, according to Wednesday's announcement.

The partnership will also involve collaborative efforts to recruit and train additional staff and election workers and open 14 new satellite clerk offices throughout the city.

The 14 new satellite offices will add to seven others already in place. At the offices, voters can register and request and return absentee ballots starting Oct. 5.

Election officials are also hoping to recruit and train at least 6,000 election workers to "ensure every one of the city’s 182 polling locations and 134 absentee counting boards is fully staffed," according to Wednesday's press release.

Staffing levels were viewed as a key problem in Detroit's primary election as some veteran workers didn't show up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Winfrey said previously that workers were on the job for more than 20 hours on the day of the primary.

"Partnerships are critical to running smooth, secure elections and the additional staff, resources and support from the city, county and state will further strengthen our election system as we navigate this unprecedented time," Winfrey said. “Detroit voters should feel completely confident that their voices will be heard when they cast their ballots ahead of and on Nov. 3."

Detroit's problems tracking ballots have been in the spotlight amid expected surges in absentee ballots and claims from President Donald Trump that the surges could lead to potential fraud.

In 2016, Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes, his closet margin of victory nationally.

After approving a constitutional amendment in 2018 to allow for no-reason absentee voting, voters cast nearly 1.6 million absentee ballots in the Aug. 4 primary. The total beat the previous absentee voting record of 1.27 million absentee ballots cast in the November 2016 presidential election. 

On Aug. 24, the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, the board in charge of certifying election results, voted to require Benson to exercise her "supervisory control" in Detroit's upcoming election.

All four members of the board — two Democrats and two Republicans — voiced frustration with the results of Detroit's primary. Republican state board member Aaron Van Langevelde said the situation was "very troubling" and "unacceptable."

"A repeat performance is going to seriously undermine the public's confidence in the general election," he said.