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How Detroit election workers scored a win in face of criticism, threats

The Detroit News
Aug. 29, 2021
Craig Mauger

Detroit — Janice Winfrey, a former math teacher who’s now the top election official in Michigan’s largest city, received threats, criticism and national attention as supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the 2020 election.

At one point, police said they needed to surveil her house, she said.

Winfrey thought about quitting, not seeking another term as Detroit’s clerk, but ultimately decided she wanted to stay on the job, she said.

“This is not what we signed up for,” said Winfrey, sitting at a table in her second-floor office last week after detailing a story of someone threatening to blow up her neighborhood.

“I see myself as the keeper of democracy for this city. You don’t hand that away. That’s the only reason that I didn’t walk.”

After the Nov. 3 election, Winfrey and her team dived into implementing new processes designed to improve key aspects about how the vote is administered in Detroit. There’s already evidence their ideas are working.

For years, one of the most discussed problems with elections in Detroit has been the city’s inability to balance tallies of voters with tallies of ballots in the same precincts.

But in Detroit’s municipal primary election earlier this month, none of the city’s 120 absentee voter counting boards were out of balance without an explanation, an achievement that’s been touted by Democratic and Republican officials. Three of the boards, 2.5%, were off by one vote with explanations, meaning workers had determined what caused the variation.

In the November 2020 election, which brought protests outside the TCF Center, where Detroit’s absentee ballots were counted, about 70% of the city’s counting boards were out of balance.

The imbalanced numbers don’t indicate there was fraud but do point to accounting problems that could, under state law, prevent at least some of the precincts from being included in potential recounts.

Last year, the mismatches also provided an opportunity for Trump and others to slam Detroit’s election. In November, the then-president tweeted there was “rampant” fraud in the city and there were “far more votes than people.” The Michigan Republican Party also called for an audit of Wayne County’s results.

On Nov. 17, the Republican members of Wayne County Board of Canvassers initially refused to certify the county’s results because of the Detroit tallies before changing course and approving the numbers.

“Based on what I saw and went through in poll books in this canvass, I believe that we do not have complete and accurate information in those poll books,” GOP canvasser Monica Palmer said in November.

But during a meeting earlier this month, Palmer called the results from August a “huge improvement.”

‘Make sure that it happens’

Instead of simply taking the 2020 certification as a win and moving on, Daniel Baxter, a Detroit election official who works for Winfrey and oversees the absentee voting process, vowed in December to do better.

“In August of 2021, all 120 of our boards are going to balance,” Baxter said he told Winfrey. “And I’m going to make sure that it happens.”

He essentially achieved that goal with 0% of the absentee voter counting boards out of balance without explanations, and nearly 98% of the city’s absentee voter counting boards balanced.

While there were 48,058 absentee ballots cast in the primary compared with 174,384 in the 2020 general election, Michigan’s longtime former elections director Chris Thomas said it’s likely Detroit officials will be able to replicate their August success in future elections.

“They just need to stay at it,” said Thomas, who works as a consultant for the city’s elections. “There’s no reason that if they stay with the program that they shouldn’t be able to accomplish the same thing.”

Baxter, who began working for the city 36 years ago, agreed.

A template for handling absentee ballots is what led to the results in August and that template will work with a larger number of ballots, he said.

How they did it

The noise surrounding the last presidential vote, nearly 300 days ago, was in the background Wednesday as 40 election workers in Detroit quietly went about their jobs at folding tables on the fourth floor of the election department’s office building. The fourth floor is now dedicated to the city’s absentee ballot-tracking system.

Baxter’s process is based on keeping ballot applications and ballots in small batches of 50 and regularly checking to ensure the numbers reconcile. The strategy is to prevent small mistakes early in the process as well as imbalances on Election Day.

Applications for absentee ballots are opened and checked into the state’s qualified voter file, which tracks registered voters, in groups of 50. When the ballots are mailed and returned, workers continue to track and reconcile the information in groups of 50.

The ballots are placed in bundles of 50, so when the counting boards tally the results on Election Day, they handle groups of 50. Four bundles of 50 are ultimately sent to the tabulators together. If there aren’t 200 ballots there, election workers have to resolve what happened.

The work involves checking for imbalances throughout the process and having subject-matter experts do specific jobs. Previously, at satellite voting locations where absentee ballots could be cast ahead of Election Day, workers would enter information into the qualified voter file. Now, that responsibility is happening at a centralized location.

Plus, the Clerk’s Office has created a specific job of “balancer” to work with absentee voter counting boards on Election Day to ensure the numbers are exact. There are 12 balancers, one each for 10 counting boards.

What’s ahead?

Thomas said he also noticed many younger election workers who did the job for the first time in November returned for the August primary. There seemed to be an “us versus them” mentality, he said, referring to the criticism that was levied against Detroit’s 2020 election.

“There is some pride there,” Thomas said.

Baxter knows about that pride. As a kid, he had a summer youth job working for the city and an internship in 1984 before getting his first full-time position with the city a year later.

“When someone or something has been that kind and gracious to you, you want to do everything you can to make sure that it is the shining example of excellence,” Baxter said. “Because of the gift the city has given me, I want to reciprocate in some form or fashion.”

Baxter said he never thought about quitting after the 2020 election but acknowledged frustration with the criticism levied against Detroit.

Winfrey said she did think about quitting. She said she got a call from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a fellow Detroiter, in the weeks after the election.

“She said, ‘If you give up now, that’s exactly what they want you to do,'” Winfrey recalled. “She said, ‘Janice, hang in there. We’re a good team. We’ll get through it together.'”

Winfrey, who was first elected in 2005, is now seeking another four-year term as clerk. In the August primary, she finished first in a four-way primary with 70% of the vote. She will face Denzel McCampbell, a Detroit charter commissioner, in the November general election.

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