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Does Detroit have enough poll workers?

Does Detroit have enough poll workers?

We look at the state of poll working and how the city is preparing for Nov. 3.

detroit poll workers

Come Nov. 3, some Detroit voters will head to the polls to finally cast their ballot in the general election (you can still vote early — learn how here). With the Motor City recording nearly 160,000 requests for absentee ballots by mid-October — almost  four times as many as in 2016 — voting at the polls may look different than in previous years — but it still requires thousands of trained workers.

To meet the challenges of counting ballots and managing an election in a pandemic, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey is working with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to ensure the problems of the Aug. 4 primary election, such as last-minute closures of polling stations, late-openings, no-shows and lack of communication with poll workers, are not repeated. 

We take a look at some frequently asked questions about how Detroit is staffing the polls:

How is Detroit addressing poll worker problems from the primary?

For now, Detroit’s clerk’s office has put out a notice informing potential poll workers that all positions have been filled for the election. The city is poised to have 10,000 election inspectors (the official term for poll workers), including 500 substitutes, according to Bridge Magazine, across 503 voting precincts and 134 absentee counting boards. Pay raises, from federal funding and other grants, are helping increase interest, said Winfrey.

This contrasts with poll preparations ahead of the primary election, when less than two weeks before Aug. 4, the city faced a shortage of about 900 poll workers, with a total of 1,500 workers needed. 

Detroit resident Sofia Nelson, 33, will be working the polls on the midnight shift after Election Day. She said her poll worker training was full of volunteers.

“You can see there is no dearth of volunteers at the training sessions. All the seats in the room were filled and there were still extra people waiting outside, so you know, assuming everyone who was trained actually shows up, we should be fine,” Nelson told Detour.

A screenshot of the notice Detroit’s city clerk has put out on its Poll Worker Online Access Portal announcing that all positions are filled for the Nov. 3 general election.

Should we be worried about how prepared Detroit is for Election Day?

Problems in the primary, along with President Donald Trump’s recent unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and his call to supporters to watch the polls “carefully” has created a sense of urgency among some Detroit voters to help the polling process on Election Day. 

For its part, the city in partnership with the state has initiated a slew of measures to raise voter confidence since the primary. These include expanding the number of satellite voting locations, drop boxes, poll workers and training. To address coronavirus concerns, workers are required to self-screen daily, have their temperatures checked daily/each shift/on Election Day and be provided with PPE equipment. 

Aghogho Edevbie, the Michigan director of nonpartisan voting rights group All Voting Is Local, is a member of a coalition of election support groups helping state and local officials, including in Detroit. is confident the city will be ready for Election Day. 

“Come Election Day, we will have an infrastructure and system in place that allows anyone who is able to vote, and wants to vote, to vote,” Edevbie said. “The government, the clerk’s office and the coalition have been working very hard, just to primarily make sure that we are on the right path and prepared and ready for a successful election cycle.”

Detroit resident Saika Islam, an organizer with The Poll Hero Project, said the clerk’s office has been relatively easy to work with. The Poll Hero Project is a national group that recruits teenagers to be poll workers. In Michigan, people as young as 16 can work the polls.

“The clerk’s office has been very welcoming,” Islam said. ”We’ve got so many people signed up in Detroit and their experience going through training and everything else was fine. We haven’t heard of any major issues. 

“I don’t think there will be too many issues with getting poll workers out there. The only thing I’d be concerned about is, if anyone falls sick last minute or something like that. There might be some last-minute substitute workers that we need to call in,” she added. 

I applied to be a poll worker. Why haven’t I heard back yet? 

Several people we spoke to, who applied to be poll workers but never heard back, were frustrated with the lack of communication and clarity from the city clerk’s office. 

“Detroiters in normal time face disorganization when going to the polls so I’m very concerned during this pandemic about what will happen, which is why I chose to volunteer,” said Detroit resident Kristin Palm, 51, who applied online to be a poll worker on Sept. 9. 

Another resident, Gabriella Santiago-Romero, also never received a response to her application, 

“I know the reality is that most of our poll workers in the past have been elderly citizens, and COVID-19 now prevents many of them from being out, so I put in application to help make sure everyone who wants to vote, gets to vote,” Santiago-Romero said, adding that she was expecting some kind of followup from the city clerk’s office.  

“I just hope things go well. I know that I will be very disappointed and upset if they don’t,” she said.  

Edevbie and Islam suggested the communication lapse may be linked to working through the pandemic. 

“I think just because of the current circumstances, there have been delays with every county that we’ve been in contact with — not just Detroit,” Islam said. “They’ve been working a lot on trying to get people as well as trying to set up the election and make sure that it’s safe. So because of that, it’s been kind of difficult to communicate.”

Both organizers acknowledge that for a smooth Election Day, Winfrey’s office should do better to communicate and ensure proper staffing, with more “accessible information for the public,” according to Islam.

“Overall I think it’s the responsibility of the clerk’s office to make sure that voters know what their options are if they don’t get an absentee ballot on time, and to make sure we have proper staffing at all levels of the clerk’s office and the clerk’s operation,” Edevbie said. “If those two things happen, I think we’re going to be in a good spot, but they both have to happen.” 

What else can I do to help?

Many residents who applied to be poll workers are now opting to help with poll watching to counter any issues of voter intimidation that may arise in parts of the city. 

After not hearing back from the clerk’s office about her poll worker application, Palm signed up to be a poll watcher with the Michigan Democratic Party.

Santiago-Romero said she plans to volunteer with a grassroots election protection organization to ensure Detroiters can cast their votes safely, echoing a concern that other poll watchers and challengers may target communities of color and heavily Democractic areas “to instill fear.”

“In 2016, there was just a lot of high anxiety, high emotions, so we need to make sure that there’s constant monitoring,” she said

Interested in helping on Election Day? Sign up to volunteer with ACLU Michigan’s Election Protection Program, or the NAACP-Detroit to protect voting rights.  


Alison Saldanha is a reporter and Elections SOS fellow with Detour Detroit.

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