Observations from a Detroit poll challenger

Observations from a Detroit poll challenger

Op-ed: Volunteering at the polls restored a good deal of my faith in the integrity of our elections. That’s not to say there weren’t any issues — they just all got resolved.

Like many citizens, I wanted to be a part of the electoral process this year. I came away realizing I need to take part every year. 

Due to a confluence of concerns about COVID-19 and an unprepared city clerk’s office, Detroit polling locations were severely understaffed during the primaries. Given the stakes of this election, I thought it was my duty to help in any way I could. 

At first I signed up to be a poll worker in Detroit, but was told by the clerk’s office that enough people had already signed up this election. It seemed the next best option would be to volunteer as an election observer — someone affiliated with a party, candidate or other organization to make sure the election is carried out correctly. I signed up with the Michigan Democrats.

As a registered voter in the state where I was observing, I was designated as a “poll challenger,” which means I would have the ability to challenge a poll worker’s conduct or someone’s right to cast a ballot. But my training with the Michigan Democrats made it clear that my main role was to make sure that everyone who could vote got a chance to. I also had to be on the lookout for potential issues — like voter intimidation or if a precinct was out of ballots — and report them to the Michigan Democrats’ “boiler room” to see if any follow-up was required. 

Though poll challenging sparked chaos and protests at TCF Center Wednesday after polls closed and the counting process was underway, the view from my assigned polling location on Tuesday was much calmer.

I showed up at 6:30 a.m. to Mason Academy on Detroit’s east side and stayed there until 9 p.m. I’m happy to report that there were no major problems all day long. Despite little sleep, long hours, the anxiety of coronavirus, and generally being under immense pressure, poll workers were dedicated and helpful. No one showed up to intimidate voters. The lines were never more than 10 minutes long. 

Though it was just one day at one polling location, it restored a good deal of my faith in the integrity of our elections. That’s not to say there weren’t any issues — they just all got resolved. 

One was around mail-in ballots. Given that many more people requested them this year, there were some questions at the beginning of the day: What if someone brings in their ballot to surrender? What if the poll book said the voter received it, but they said they never did? One poll worker said they needed to fill out a provisional envelope ballot (which gets counted later and is easier to challenge). I didn’t think that was right. We asked the chairperson, who called the clerk’s office, who told us that the voter could sign an affidavit attesting that their ballot was missing, fill out a regular ballot and enter it into the tabulator. A much better outcome. 

Another time two poll workers got confused about which ballot number they were actually on because several voters spoiled their ballots. They figured out the problem and moved on. 

One voting machine malfunctioned. Several hours later a technician showed up and fixed it. All the ballots in the auxiliary box were then entered into the machine. 

At the end of the day, all the tallies between the voting machines and ballots matched. A few poll workers hooted and gave a subdued, tired round of applause. 

Issues are bound to crop up when millions of ballots need to be correctly cast, according to specific rules, within a short timeframe. In Detroit, however, the checks and balances in the system worked — at least from what I observed.

Aaron Mondry is a freelance journalist in Detroit and editor of The Dig, Detour’s real estate and development newsletter.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.