Absentee surge carries clerk Winfrey to win

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — A political bout expected to come down to the wire did just that as Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey narrowly defeated challenger Garlin Gilchrist.

Unofficial election results early Wednesday morning showed Winfrey with 50.6 percent of the vote to Gilchrist's 49.1 percent with all 590 city precincts reporting; only 1,482 votes separated the pair.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey speaks at a press conference at the Department of Elections on Nov. 2.

Winfrey's edge came late after trailing most of Tuesday evening. Early returns favored Gilchrist, a former city technology director, who at times enjoyed a considerable lead of 54 percent to Winfrey's 45 percent.

Reached by phone late Tuesday night, Gilchrist said he wasn’t conceding because the results were still “too close to call.” He said he also wanted to investigate the surge of votes that suddenly went to Winfrey after Gilchrist led for most of the night.

“We are certainly proud of the support we were able to earn from thousands of supporters,” Gilchrist said.  “We need to understand, to make sure we have a clear picture of how the returns evolved over the night.”

Winfrey could not immediately be reached for comment.

A breakdown of complete results showed that Winfrey dominated the absentee vote, while Gilchrist won a majority of Election Day votes. Winfrey had 19,967 absentee votes compared to Gilchrist’s 11,207 with all precincts reporting. Gilchrist won 37,193 votes at the polls Tuesday while Winfrey earned 29,915, according to Wayne County voting data.

Mayor Mike Duggan also weighed in on the city clerk’s race after celebrating his own victory Tuesday night: “Garlin Gilchrist obviously ran an excellent campaign against an excellent candidate in Janice Winfrey,” he said.

Political observers called this year’s face-off the most competitive city clerk race since Winfrey defeated longtime clerk Jackie Currie in 2005.

Like Gilchrist now, Winfrey then was a political novice. She defeated Currie following allegations about irregularities in absentee ballots, legal challenges and an announced FBI investigation into possible voter fraud.

Winfrey, 59, touted an overhauled voting system in her bid for re-election while the 35-year-old Gilchrist said the incumbent’s November 2016 election mishaps were a sign that someone else should run the office.

Gilchrist criticized Winfrey by calling the November 2016 election a “complete catastrophe,” saying the clerk’s office has failed at record keeping.

A state audit released in February revealed that an “abundance of human errors” caused mismatched vote totals that resulted in 216 questionable votes, a development that put Detroit in the national spotlight.

But some voters on Tuesday said the election mishaps didn’t impact their support for Winfrey.

Ingrid Walker said she believes Winfrey’s office staff has been accessible and provides all the information voters need before elections.

“I like what she’s doing so far,” said Walker, who cast her ballot at Warren Bow Elementary-Middle School. “Why fix something that’s not broken?”

Detroit City Clerk candidate Garlin Gilcrist and his wife, Ellen Gilcrist, pose for a a photo at the Butzel Family Center on the east side of Detroit on Tuesday.

Deborah Lewis, 55, said the November 2016 election wasn’t a deal-breaker.

“I don’t have a problem with Janice,” Lewis said. “She’s been doing pretty good to me.”

Other voters said it was time for a change in the clerk’s office and voted for Gilchrist.

“We had a lot of issues with the polls under her leadership,” said Alesia Brown, a lifelong Detroiter. “I think somebody needs to do something different. We need to change hats and see if things can get solved.”

Evelyn Brown, a 75-year-old retired community development worker, also supported Gilchrist.

“His background in IT is really something, and it is value added when everything really is about the systems,” she said.

David Lingholm, a spokesman for the Gilchrist campaign, said their team was "encouraged" by the high voter turnout at some precincts Tuesday.

"We are excited that we are this close," Lingholm said, shortly after 8 p.m. when polls closed. "We are proud that we have been able to change the way people talk about the city clerk's election in Detroit."

Gilchrist has said he wants to make the clerk’s office social media savvy, increase voter turnout through more community outreach and promote easier access to public records. He said he designed Detroit’s “open data portal” when he worked as the city’s technology director.

Winfrey maintained her accomplishments speak volumes after nearly 12 years in office and that Detroiters should “vote for trusted experience.”

Winfrey took credit for cleaning up the city’s voter files, creating an archives division that stores ordinances and other city records in digital or print format, and recently launching a system that sends ballot receipts to absentee voters. She also touted the city’s satellite voting locations that allow voters to cast absentee ballots up to one month before elections.

“I’ve had to do more with less as we navigated through the bankruptcy,” Winfrey told The Detroit News, referring to the city’s bankruptcy filing from which the city emerged at the end of 2014.

Gilchrist has increased his competitiveness by raising more money than Winfrey. Between August and October, he collected $115,000 to Winfrey’s $13,500, according to campaign finance reports. That was in addition to the nearly $102,000 Gilchrist raised before the primary, when the incumbent raised $12,000.

Winfrey won the August primary with 51 percent of the vote, trailed by Gilchrist at 19 percent and former Detroit NAACP executive director Heaster Wheeler at 13 percent. Wheeler has endorsed Gilchrist.

Winfrey, a former middle school math teacher, came under fire in 2016 when the Michigan Bureau of Elections audited 136 of the city’s most irregular precincts — “the worst of the worst,” it said — after a Wayne County canvass showed “significant discrepancies” in the number of voters and ballots in 392 Detroit precincts.

The audit concluded there was “no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” or voting machine error — attributing the problems to a series of mistakes by precinct workers and receiving boards. Winfrey still partially blamed the issues on outdated voting machines.

She also said Michigan’s recount law is “antiquated” because it bars recounts for unbalanced precincts or ones with broken seals, which happened in 10.6 percent of precincts statewide in 2016.

After the audit, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson directed the city to make “needed changes to poll worker training and recruitment efforts.”

State elections staff put an “additional focus” on Detroit this year, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Johnson. In the spring and summer, state officials reviewed the city’s training materials and attended precinct worker training sessions before the August primary, he said.

“We have been pleased with the city’s cooperation and how the August election was run,” Woodhams said.

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