Detroit’s primary was a total mess. Here’s wha...

Detroit’s primary was a total mess. Here’s what went wrong for voters

"To not be able to vote felt like a punch in the gut."

For the first time since Brittany “Breezee” Gonzales moved to Southwest Detroit eight years ago, she didn’t vote.

It wasn’t by choice. Gonzales had planned to vote in Michigan’s primary by mail and applied for her absentee ballot at the beginning of June. By Tuesday morning, the ballot had still not arrived. So Gonzales headed out to do some errands and planned to vote later that evening at her neighborhood polling site, where she had cast her ballot in every election since she’d moved to Detroit. After grabbing dinner on the go, she headed to Western High School around 6:15 p.m. That’s when the wild goose change began.

Handwritten sign indicating new location for a Detroit polling place during Michigan's primary election on Aug. 4.
Sign at Western High School in Southwest Detroit indicating the polling location had been changed, Aug. 4, 2020. Photo courtesy Brittany Gonzales

When Gonzales arrived, she found a small sign in front of the massive building, indicating that the polling site was closed and directing voters to two polling places with a list of precinct numbers for each. Gonzales, not knowing her precinct number, randomly headed to one of them. After she determined she was at the wrong spot, she went to the other. But by the time she got there, the polling site had closed. 

“To not be able to vote felt like a punch in the gut,” Gonzales told Detour. “Elections are so important, and I feel like the citywide elections are even more important.”

When Gonzales got home, she found two pieces of mail waiting for her. One was her ballot. The other was a letter from Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office, dated July 24 (the envelope had no postmark date), informing her of the polling location change. Gonzales was “livid.”

“I cannot be the only one that got confused,” she said. “I could imagine other people taking the bus there and then realizing they had to go somewhere else.” 

This election is not the first time Detroiters have faced chaos at the polls. Other years have seen problems with voting equipment, miscounts and poll worker shortages. 

But COVID-19 introduced new challenges to in-person voting and caused an unprecedented flood of absentee ballots, leading to particular confusion and roadblocks for voters Tuesday — not to mention troubling implications for the November presidential election. Voters reported not receiving absentee ballots or receiving them within 24 hours of the election; precincts opening late due to no-show polling workers; and little or no notice about late changes to polling locations.

In a statement to WDET, Winfrey said there had been 25 location changes out of 502 precincts — however, a list compiled by WDET and the ACLU shows 31 location changes. According to Winfrey, changes were due to public schools hosting summer school and churches whose leaders expressed reservations about opening to the public during the pandemic. 

Winfrey had warned about poll worker shortages less than two weeks before the election; she told the Detroit Free Press that the number of no-shows was “abnormal” and related to COVID-19 concerns. Winfrey did not return Detour’s request for comment about delayed communication with voters over polling place changes.

According to Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, not being able to vote was particularly upsetting for Detroiters this year.

“We’ve been frustrated enough with the coronavirus pandemic and the racial pandemic, and just living our everyday lives, trying to navigate this new reality,” Landrum told Detour. “And so then to have your power through the ballot box be disenfranchised — there’s just another level there that adds to the fire that many people are feeling.”

Landrum said she acknowledges that Winfrey faces “challenges that are presented to her and not necessarily that she creates” when it comes to poll workers showing up and, this election day, a lack of PPE. And while she said Winfrey’s office does coordinate with the community, “there’s a lot of room for community input improvement.” Landrum would like to see the clerk do more outreach to community groups through multiple avenues — including text, email, and the media — to notify people of last-minute polling location changes.

“There just has to be a better response to dealing with some of these on-the-spot issues that happen,” she said. “We can’t accept an 8.5-by-11-inch sign on a 16,000-square-foot building to say that a polling location has changed.”

Going into November, Landrum hopes to see federal legislation passed to fully fund and staff the U.S. Post Office to handle the expected increased volume in mail-in voting. She encourages people who want to vote by mail to get their ballot in as soon as possible. “Get it mailed to you early and send it back early,” she said. “Try your best not to get too close to the deadline.”

Sharon Dolente, an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, told Detour that the primary went smoothly across most of the state.

“Of course, the work continues as we ensure more people have access to voting by clearing any and all hurdles, which includes recruiting more poll workers, ensuring city and township clerks are ready for in-person voting 40 days before Election Day and encouraging voters to vote early in the November election,” Dolente said.

Michiganders returned a record-setting 1.6 million absentee ballots in Monday’s primary, exceeding the previous record of 1.27 million in the general election of 2018 — the first year any-reason absentee voting was legal. Dolente said election officials will need to plan and prepare for more than twice that number come November.

“They’ll need the staff and resources to respond to that demand,” Dolente said. “We also need to do more in Michigan to educate voters that they can visit their city or township clerk’s office between Sept. 24 and Nov. 2 to vote an absentee ballot in person.”

Gonzales hopes her experience in November goes differently than it did on Monday.

“I just hope that our city clerk adapts to serve those who need their votes to be heard,” she told Detour. “And I wish that I was able to vote yesterday. It really is sitting poorly with me.”

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak