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Detroit workers, banks and Quicken Loans staff to help process mail-in ballots Nov. 3

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is diverting its workforce to help process hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots on Nov. 3, and it is counting on volunteers from banks, health care and mortgage companies to chip in.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan noted Tuesday that 800 to 1,000 volunteers will be needed to help the City Clerk's Office process an anticipated 200,000 mail-in ballots on Election Day, a feat he said is worth about 10,000 hours of work. 

"We are basically shutting down city government for two days and putting all the city employees at the clerk's disposal," Duggan said during a virtual session on voting during the COVID-19 pandemic hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Democratic Governors Association and National Conference of Democratic Mayors. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

The mayor added that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, area banking institutions and Quicken Loans also are diverting workers toward helping the Detroit City Clerk's Office. Precincts whose poll books don’t match with ballots can’t be recounted, according to state law. Instead, the original election results would stand.

"What you are going to see is hundreds and probably well over 1,000 people thoroughly trained because we know we have to get those votes counted quickly and accurately and you're going to have real questions," he added.

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey's office drew bipartisan condemnation after 72% of the recorded votes in Detroit's absentee voting precincts didn't match the number of ballots cast and prompted Wayne County canvassers to ask for a state investigation and intervention. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Winfrey reached a partnership that included hiring former Michigan Bureau of Elections chief Chris Thomas.

Election workers in Detroit's primary improperly altered some votes and counted thousands of absentee ballots without checks against voter lists, GOP poll challengers said in affidavits and interviews. The Aug. 4 primary vote counting problems reflect a pattern of troubles over at least 15 years that have included judicial intervention, recounts of ballots by state election officials and an FBI investigation into potential voter fraud. 

Duggan stressed that mail-in votes are challenging to process  Four years ago, the city had 300,000 votes and 75,000 were by mail. It'll be more than two times that amount for this presidential race. 

"The amount of time it takes to handle each one of these is a problem," he said. "And the law in Michigan says you can't even start touching those mail-in ballots until the polls open on Election Day at 7 a.m. So imagine processing 200,000 envelopes, verifying each one of them correctly before you even take the ballot out."

Duggan did not discuss tabulation issues during the Tuesday appearance. But he previously said he reached out to Winfrey and Benson to get the issues corrected, saying "we cannot have a recurrence of these problems in November."

Ahead of the primary, Detroit offered incentives to city employees, some of whom were laid off during the pandemic, to help at the polls. Efforts by the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, Wayne County Community College District and the Detroit Pistons also helped increase volunteer numbers, the clerk's office has said. 

Republican President Donald Trump threatened to withhold funding from Michigan in May after Benson mailed absentee ballot applications to all of the state's 7.7 million qualified voters. Trump has called mail-in ballots "very dangerous," saying "there's tremendous fraud involved."

On Monday however the president encouraged voters to request absentee ballots and to vote early.

Duggan said voters at the polls tend to cast ballots for Trump and mail-in voters favor Biden. He worried that the president could claim victory based on incomplete results dominated by votes cast on Election Day while mail-in ballots continue to be counted over several days.

The mayor added: "What I've said to all of our big companies is: 'We need you.'"

"I can't imagine anything more important than if Joe Biden wins making sure his presidency gets off to the kind of legitimate start he's entitled to," Duggan said.

The Tuesday event also featured Democratic Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.

The discussion is among several anticipated with governors and mayors on efforts to improve elections and voter education plans.

This Thursday, Detroit for the first time has 20 same-day polling places opening. 

"We are going to make sure that every vote gets counted no matter who you voted for," Duggan said. "I am confident, as I told Vice President Biden, we're going to give you a prompt result with no drama out of the City of Detroit on election night."

cferretti@detroitnews.com