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After botching past elections, Detroit aims to avoid a 'black eye' in November

Detroit is recruiting and training thousands of election workers in hopes of getting it right — and ensuring every vote counts — when the presidency is at stake.
Image: A poll worker drowns in a flood of mail-in ballots while juggling paper ballots in his hands.
During Michigan's August primary, a record number of absentee ballots overwhelmed city election workers. Adam Maida / for NBC News

DETROIT — The workers had signed in. They’d had their temperatures screened. They’d filled out paperwork, and they were waiting for their training to begin when Daniel Baxter strode to the center of the room, grabbed a microphone and launched into a speech that, at times, seemed more suited to the pulpit where he preaches on Sundays than the convention center basement where he trains election workers.

“Say, ‘There’s healing power!’” Baxter called to the trainees, his booming voice echoing through the cavernous exhibit hall where 75 workers sat, spaced apart, around large, rectangular tables.

“C’mon, say it again,” he said when the group’s response was less than enthusiastic. “Say, 'There's healing power in troubled waters.'"

"There's healing power in troubled waters," the group repeated.

Daniel Baxter addresses election workers during a training session in Detroit.
Daniel Baxter addresses election workers during a training session in Detroit.Erin Einhorn / NBC News

Baxter, 55, a former elections director for Detroit who has been enlisted by the city to help with next month’s presidential election, didn't spell out exactly what he meant by troubled waters.

He didn’t need to. Many of the people attending that Wednesday morning training last week, sitting in the very seats where they’ll be processing absentee ballots on Election Day, had signed up for this job precisely because they knew about the problems that have dogged Detroit elections in the past.

They knew what happened two months ago during Michigan’s primary, when a record number of absentee ballots overwhelmed city election workers, who were short-staffed and ill-prepared because of Covid-19. They knew that exhausted workers, processing ballots all day and into the following morning in this massive, concrete basement, had made so many errors that 72 percent of the city's absentee-ballot counting boards were out of balance, meaning the number of votes recorded did not align with the number of ballots cast.

Michigan Voters Visit The Polls For State's Primary Election
Residents wait in line for same-day voter registration or amendments to their voting status outside of the Department of Elections in Detroit during the Michigan primary on Aug. 4, 2020.Brittany Greeson / Getty Images file

And they knew what could happen if these problems repeat themselves during the general election next month, when the entire nation will be watching.

Donald Trump won Michigan four years ago by just 10,704 votes. If the election doesn’t go his way this time, he and his supporters — already on high alert from the president’s repeated unfounded assertions that Democrats will try to rig the election — are sure to scrutinize how the ballots were tallied in Detroit. The state’s largest city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Joe Biden is likely to get more votes in Detroit than in any other city in the state.

So when city and state election officials announced last month that they needed thousands of energetic election workers to help address the problems that undermined the August primary, they were flooded with applications.

“Thank you so much for putting your hands to the plow for this particular operation,” Baxter told the workers last week. “When the clarion call was made, you all answered, and as such, we are very confident that we will have the ability to be efficient, to be accurate, and to make sure that every vote counts for the citizens of the city of Detroit.”

Many of the workers at the training session said they know the urgency of the job and vowed to avoid the mistakes of the past.

“So Trump ain’t got no wiggle room,” said David Taylor, 55, of Detroit.

If the president loses, Taylor said, “he’ll say it was done wrong.”

‘It was just jaw-dropping’

Detroit’s long history of election problems was last in the national spotlight after Trump’s narrow victory here in 2016.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, quickly conceded to Trump, but a short-lived recount pushed by the Green Party’s nominee, Jill Stein, revealed that more than half of Detroit’s precincts were legally ineligible to be recounted.

Vonettia Midgett, of Detroit, awaits assistance as the massive recounting of ballots begins for Wayne County's portion of the presidential election in Detroit on Dec. 6, 2016.
Vonettia Midgett awaits assistance as the massive recounting of ballots begins for Wayne County's portion of the presidential election in Detroit on Dec. 6, 2016.Max Ortiz / Detroit News via AP file

Michigan has an unusual law that bars recounts in precincts where votes are out of balance — a law that dates to the mid-20th century when lawmakers feared post-election tampering with lever-style voting machines, said Christopher Thomas, who retired in 2017 after 36 years at the helm of Michigan’s election bureau.

“It’s an outdated system that really needs to be changed,” said Thomas, who was also brought on as a consultant last month to help Detroit in this election. “It’s kind of hard to explain to people why you wouldn’t recount things that are off. One would think those are exactly the things that should be recounted.”

Efforts to change the law over the years have not succeeded, Thomas said. Though election officials have gotten better at balancing precincts, the issue persists across the state. A voter might leave a precinct before completing the ballot, he said, or an election worker might fail to document that a voter made a mistake on a ballot and asked for another.

Problems are especially pronounced in Detroit because of the city’s size and its volume of votes, Thomas said.

They were exacerbated in 2016 by an unwieldy, two-page ballot with multiple referendums and 63 school board candidates, said Baxter, who was in charge of city elections at the time.

An audit later “found no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” in 2016 but blamed “an abundance of human errors,” including the mishandling of provisional ballots, which are cast by people whose names are not initially found on a precinct’s voter list.

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Precinct voting should be easier this year, Baxter said, because Detroiters will have a single-page ballot and turnout on Election Day is expected to be much lower than in the past. Due to the threat of exposure to the coronavirus and to changes in state law that have made it easier to vote absentee, most Detroiters are expected to put their ballot into a drop box or the mail before Nov. 3.

That shift to early and absentee voting is what led to the unprecedented turnout in August, when the number of absentee ballots cast in the state’s primary shattered records. Despite the absence of major contested races, Detroit received 80,000 absentee ballots — nearly 50,000 more than during the gubernatorial primary in 2018 when four Republicans and three Democrats were vying for the state’s top job.

The sheer volume might have been hard for city workers to process even under the best of circumstances, Baxter said, but election workers were further hobbled by the pandemic, which slowed preparations and made it harder to recruit workers. Many of the people who’ve worked Election Day in recent years are elderly and at high risk of serious complications from the coronavirus.

Debra Moore sanitizes her workspace during primary Election Day on Aug. 4, 2020, in Detroit.
Debra Moore sanitizes her workspace during primary Election Day on Aug. 4, 2020, in Detroit.Nicole Hester / via AP file

With only two nurses on hand to screen workers’ temperatures as they entered the counting room in the basement of Detroit’s TCF Center, many workers weren’t seated until 10 a.m., three hours after the law allowed counting to begin, Baxter said. And there were delays in printing poll books, the lists of voters that election workers needed to check as they processed ballots.

That led overwhelmed, under-trained workers to take shortcuts such as feeding ballots into the tabulator without first making sure they were valid, said Clifford Frost, one of a number of Republican party volunteers who observed the ballot tabulation process at the convention center during the August primary and documented a long list of errors.

“It was just jaw-dropping,” said Frost, 73, a real estate agent from Warren, Michigan, adding that if this happens again next month when the presidency is at stake, “it’ll be a major, phenomenal black eye, an embarrassment.”

Bob Cushman, another Republican observer, who signed an affidavit documenting improprieties during the absentee ballot counting in August, said fatigued workers who’d started their day at dawn started leaving as the evening wore on.

By midnight, election officials were warning workers they wouldn't be fully paid unless they stayed to the end, said Cushman, 70, of South Lyon, Michigan, a retired corporate pilot for General Motors.

Then, at 2 a.m., he said, a top supervisor made an announcement instructing workers to skip ballot processing steps such as checking to make sure the number on each ballot matched the number in the poll book and to just start feeding ballots into tabulation machines.

“I was shocked,” Cushman said. “They wanted to do this to get out of there and be able to finish up before they lost everybody, but it still took three more hours to process all the ballots and do the paperwork.”

‘A learning experience’

Baxter said some of the allegations from Republicans observers were rooted in politics. Most imbalanced precincts were off by just a vote or two. But city and state election officials don’t deny that serious mistakes were made in August.

“In anybody’s view, that was a disaster,” said Norman Shinkle, a Republican member of the state board of canvassers, which verifies election results. The board considered not approving the August results but did so after calling for state oversight of Detroit’s election operations.

Michigan’s secretary of state, whose office oversees elections, responded in September, announcing a series of interventions, together with the Detroit city clerk, to better prepare the city to process an expected deluge of 200,000 absentee ballots in November.

They hired Thomas, whose tenure as head of the state elections bureau spanned four decades and five governors, and announced plans to recruit 6,000 election workers.

Churches and community groups put out the word. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced plans to essentially shut down city government on Election Day to make all city employees available to help. City sports teams volunteered staff and facilities for the effort.

The city will now have five workers at every absentee counting board table instead of three, Baxter said. They’ll make $600 a day instead of the $200 they made in the past. They’ll have more training, going through a hands-on course involving practice ballots instead of the lecture-style training of the past. They’ll have more supervisors to support them and they’ll have an electronic poll book system that will confirm voters using a barcode scanner instead of hunting for a voter’s name on a long, printed list.

Daniel Baxter
Daniel Baxter, a special project coordinator for the Detroit Department of Elections, shows the screens where teams of one Democrat and one Republican will review ballots that are rejected by the tabulator because of extraneous marks or rips.Erin Einhorn / NBC News

The TCF Center will have more high-speed tabulators to count ballots and will have several shifts of workers so no one will have to start at dawn and keep going through the night.

It’s all going to make a big difference, Thomas said. “I'm feeling very good about it. Things are coming together.”

In the end, the lessons learned in the primary ended up being a “beautiful thing” for Detroit, Thomas said, because they identified problems that could be fixed before they affected the outcome of a presidential election.

“What a learning experience primary elections have been,” Thomas said. “In Wisconsin, Georgia, Maryland, all these places that did their first big mail volumes, it’s been a huge learning curve that these election officials have figured out and have adapted their systems to more efficiently handle them.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be problems next month, Thomas said. But he’s hopeful they’ll be minimal.

Whatever happens, GOP volunteers like Cushman say they’ll be watching. He’s part of what Trump has called an “army” of supporters who will monitor polls in Democratic areas.

A former Democrat who changed parties to vote for Ronald Reagan and has supported Republicans ever since, Cushman says he’s happy to do his part.

“The most important thing we can do is make sure that we have a fair election,” he said.

The election won’t be perfect — no elections are, said Sharon Dolente, the voting rights strategist for the ACLU of Michigan. She runs an election hotline for voters that fielded complaints in August about ballots that weren’t mailed out on time and voters who weren’t notified that their polling place had moved.

But she’s seen some positive adjustments from city and state officials since then and is now “cautiously optimistic” that things will go smoothly in November.

“What I would hope that people understand,” she said, “is that lots of folks in Michigan are here working on solving these problems.”