At TCF Center and across Metro Detroit, poll worke...

At TCF Center and across Metro Detroit, poll workers spent grueling hours counting every vote

See the election through the eyes of volunteers on the frontlines of the American democratic process.

tcf center detroit poll workers count

Less than 24 hours after polls closed on Election Day, the world’s eyes turned to Detroit’s TCF Center — which served as the Central Counting Board, where all the city’s absentee ballots were tabulated —  as Michigan emerged as one of the key swing states that would determine the fate of the U.S. presidency. 

By late afternoon Wednesday, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden had jumped past President Donald Trump’s initial lead in the state, and the Trump campaign had begun casting doubt on the counting process, filing a lawsuit to try to halt the vote count. Tensions rose at TCF as GOP challengers swarmed outside the building, chanting “stop the vote.” 

Inside TCF, in the eye of the storm, Detroit’s poll workers continued to meticulously and transparently check thousands of ballots to ensure every vote was counted. Many more workers helped voters cast their ballots in-person at polling places around Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. We caught up with a few of them to hear more about what it was like to serve on the frontlines of this democratic process. 

Long, tense shifts counting ballots amid chaos at TCF

Julie Burtch, 38, reported to her two-day assignment at TCF at 5:30 a.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3, without having received any prior training. 

“On Wednesday night I realized I hadn’t seen the sun for more than 48 hours,” Burtch said. About 33 of those hours were spent in a windowless room in TCF Center counting absentee ballots and the rest were spent sleeping.

A first-time poll worker, she signed up to volunteer in mid-September after the primary when officials put out the call through the state portal Democracy MVP and was given a confirmed assignment in late October.

When she arrived at TCF, Burtch was ushered into Hall D with other “unassigned” or untrained poll workers. Around 6:45 a.m., they were told to go to Hall E and sit at any table with a red flag that indicated a need for an election inspector. The people at these tables trained the unassigned workers quickly. “And then we waited,” she said. 

Three hours later Burtch’s team got their first absentee ballots from their assigned precinct, which had already been checked against voter rolls. 

“If anyone questions the integrity of absentee ballot processing, it’s because they weren’t there and don’t understand the rigor required,” she said, adding that there were at least five sets of eyes on every ballot during processing, plus ballot challengers who are legally allowed to observe — one challenger per party per table. 

Every ballot was verified against voter rolls twice by two separate groups of election inspectors. Every vote was associated with a registered voter. 

On Tuesday, work went smoothly and Burtch’s team tabulated nearly 1,400 absentee ballots before their shift ended. “I got home around 8:30, had some nachos, watched the news and went to bed so I could report back to TCF at 5:30 a.m.,” she said.

Wednesday was a different experience. “When Michigan was called for Biden, it began to get tense. GOP election monitors swarmed tables, trying to intimidate election inspectors,” Burtch said. “I overheard them encouraging each other to get in our faces and challenge every ballot and they did—they were breathing on me, asking questions that are not allowed and taking photographs and recording us.” 

When the room became too crowded and social distancing was no longer possible, the number of monitors was restricted and GOP protesters began banging on the windows and chanting “stop the count” Burtch recalled.

“I was shaken. I was afraid. I did not stop doing my job, which was to process every ballot in our precinct according to the procedures set by the Clerk and Secretary of State,” Burtch said. Some of her friends who were serving as election challengers with the Democrats checked in to see how she was feeling, offered comfort and healing and helped her feel safer, she said.

By the time counting slowed at around 9 p.m., Burtch’s team of five had processed a total of 1,715 absentee ballots for their allotted precinct over the two-day stretch. “So we helped other precincts and chatted with new friends we made during the chaos,” Burtch said.

However, the poll workers were not allowed to  go home, because the printers had stopped working. At the end of each day, election staffers print reports indicating how many ballots have been received per precinct to ensure the numbers match what the computer has indicated. This is an important step before closing a precinct. 

“That’s when the incompetence and unpreparedness of our Clerk and elections staff became apparent,” Burt said.  “We waited for two hours with little communication before finding out at midnight that it would be three to four more hours before the main printers would be done; we were offered the opportunity to go home or stay until it was all done for another $300.”

Julie Burtch, courtesy photo

After 33 hours of work over two days, Burtch’s precinct chose to go home. “A couple hundred people stayed back to make sure the ballots were always attended to. I would have liked to have stayed back too. We had pets and family waiting for us. We had jobs and school… We had given so much only to be disappointed in bureaucracy. With better processes and more communication, we could have been done hours earlier,” she said. 

“I’m equally frustrated with our Clerk as with the GOP bullies who tried to delay the count. It was so hard to walk away without finishing my job. I will never forget those ballots or that experience and have committed to returning to election inspection. Please join me.”

Counting the Black vote as majority white challengers chanted to stop it

Sofia Nelson, 33, was another first-time poll worker, assigned to start late at 9 p.m. Tuesday and work until 5 a.m Wednesday, leaving before chaos erupted outside the TCF center. 

Nelson said the process was difficult, and she came away with some frustrations about its disorganization. 

“But the overwhelming takeaway for me was just being impressed with all these people willing to work overnight to make sure every vote is counted and to keep democracy alive,” she said. 

Nelson, a public defender in Detroit, felt especially responsible as she thought of returning citizens who would be casting their ballot this election. 

“One of my clients who was incarcerated at the age of 17, 28 years ago, was released last week, and he registered to vote on Monday and voted for the first time in his life,” she said. 

”Given the mammoth task the city had on its hands with the record number of ballots and the short time frame they had to get prepared — ultimately I am proud of what we did,” Nelson said. “The process was fair, thorough and it made sure everyone’s ballot was counted — and there certainly were no shortage of people watching every step of the process.” 

Nelson added there was a heavy presence of challengers from both parties, but they didn’t prevent workers from doing their jobs. She particularly noted the presence of a group of white Republican challengers at the TCF on Tuesday night. 

“Their presence was a little overwhelming, but it wasn’t disruptive or disrespectful the way that it was [Wednesday afternoon]. It almost feels like when they realized they were losing, they decided to create chaos,” she said.  

The vast majority of the poll workers at TCF were Black, observed Nelson, who is Latinx. “So to see what we saw on the news — to see these majority white people from outside this community come here and chant ‘Stop counting,’ and to see a bunch of Black people keep counting, despite these threats — counting what we know are mostly Black votes — it’s scary! It’s unsettling, it’s depressing. But it also shows an unbelievable amount of resilience in the community. It shows we are going to play by the rules. And we are going to carry this election out. And that’s what happened in Michigan.”

Poll workers share stories from precincts across the region 

Detour also spoke to poll workers Katherine Grow, Courtney Durham, Melissa Demorest, Michelle Oberholtzer and Laura Khalil, who were stationed at precincts across Metro Detroit on Election Day. Overall, they said the day went by smoothly, with respectful poll challengers, voter camaraderie, rare issues and occasional boredom with fewer voters, given the shift to absentee voting.. There were lots of mini wins for democracy to celebrate — and, for one poll worker, doughnuts from a local mayor. 

Here’s what they saw. 

Stories lighted edited for length and clarity.

On working the election for the first time:

Durham, 31, was a first-time poll inspector Tuesday for precinct 5 in the city of Wayne, a position she found through Democracy MVP. 

“I signed up while watching the first presidential debate, enraged and needing an outlet for action. I decided to actually apply there because I believed that area wouldn’t be incredibly likely to have crazy pro-Trump disturbances or violence (yes, I hate that’s something to consider and fear right now).”

Demorest, 40, worked at the polls in Birmingham, where she lives. 

“Overall, it was a positive, but exhausting, experience. I  plan to participate again in the future, because it is so important to make sure everyone has access to voting, and to make sure voting happens properly. 

On staying safe during a pandemic:

Poll workers witnessed most people wearing masks, they told Detour, though not everyone did.

Demorest: “The voters were patient, polite, respectful, and taking appropriate COVID precautions. Out of 510 voters, only one was not wearing a mask. Many thanked us for being there. The city (or maybe the county, not sure) provided us with masks, face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, etc, and we provided hand sanitizer (and optional masks and gloves) to the voters.”

Durham: “I was disgusted by the smug anti-maskers who came through, though admittedly there weren’t many, which I appreciated as a worker who came into contact with 600+ strangers yesterday. No amount of hand/pen/secrecy sleeve sanitizing was going to protect us from someone breathing within a few feet of us as we handed them their ballot.”

On first-time voters and other wins for democracy: 

Oberholtzer, 35, saw 483 voters over 15 hours at her Hamtramck precinct — she was working the general election after losing her run for a state House seat in the primary: 

“At 7:53 p.m., a man in construction work clothes arrived and asked for a ballot. We saw that he was not registered. I told him, ‘the polls close in 7 minutes, if you can make it to City Hall in time, you can register and vote there!” I could see him weighing his options, ‘do I really want to,’ when one of the other workers confirmed that, yes he could register and vote today if he got there in time. He broke out into a run across the auditorium and a spontaneous round of applause started up! I got chills, I wanted to cry. RUNNING TO VOTE. Yes.” 

Katherine Grow, courtesy photo

Grow was the supervisor at the 167th precinct in Detroit Tuesday, which also happened to be her 30th birthday: 

“Watching democracy happen was a worthwhile way to spend my birthday. My team was amazing and the energy from the voters — first time voters, long time voters, parents who brought their young children — was energizing!”

Demorest: “We had a handful of first-time voters, but I was most struck by a man who was born in 1963 and was voting for the first time this year.”

On ensuring every valid vote is counted, despite obstacles: 

Oberholtzer: “It seems like half of the people in my line to vote had to take an extra step before getting their ballot. Many were in the wrong precinct, which usually meant no more than pointing them to the left or right side of the room where those precincts were located, but sometimes if involved looking up addresses, writing notes and encouraging people to take that extra trip. On top of that, many many people had received absentee ballots they did not submit, and those needed to be spoiled before voters could receive a new ballot. That meant waiting in an additional line that had a tendency to bottleneck if there was a difficult case.”

Durham: “We had a great poll challenger amongst us all day from the Democratic party. At first, he made us all a bit nervous, but he asked great questions about procedure all day, making the whole process very transparent, and acting as a credentialed outside source to document our one abandoned ballot. This was a case where a woman had submitted her ballot to the tabulator then high-tailed it out of the building, while a message flashed on the tabulator screen, needing more input from her. By the time the machine expelled the ballot and it fell on the floor, we couldn’t locate the woman to get her to resubmit it, and as poll workers we are not allowed to submit it for her. It felt big last night as it caused our voter count and vote count to be off by one, and you never know what… people will challenge an election over.” 

Laura Khalil, courtesy photo

On staving off boredom:

Khalil, 40, showed up just before 6 a.m. for her 15-hour shift at Rogers Elementary in Berkley, then found herself with most of a day to occupy:

“By 9 a.m. it slows down and that leaves us with 11 more hours. None as busy as the first two. When the poll is dead we swap funny gifs and stare at the door, hoping for our next voter to walk through. Midway through the day, I’m moved over to cleaning duty and decide to have some fun with my can of Lysol wipes. I appoint myself chairwoman of the cleaning committee (of one). Matt, the city manager, joins me for an hour and we talk about what exactly a city manager does, in between swapping jobs cleaning voting booths. The mayor surprises us with treats from Donut Cutter. A friend brings me dinner. I spend my break sleeping in my car for an hour. Hours go by with a handful of people. One election worker knits to pass the time. Another tells me about his trip to Germany for Oktoberfest. We both wonder when we’ll be able to leave the country again. ‘At least a year,’ he tells me. Caitlyn brought a book of Jeopardy crossword puzzles. We spend hours ruminating on the right words. ‘Alex Trebek would never approve of 32 across,’ I exclaim as we spend 20 minutes trying to come up with a four letter word for a nail that starts with B. ‘Brad nail,’ another election worker says as she breezes by. ‘Where have you been all my life?’ I joke back. I suggest we form a pub trivia group. No one takes the bait. We all know our time together is temporary. We talk about our families, jobs and favorite restaurants. One woman is a civil engineer and I spend an hour asking her about why Michigan roads are the way they are. The one thing we don’t discuss is the election.”

On why they would do it again:

Durham: “I came away from the day realizing how inherently human our voting procedures are– run by people who just want to see democracy succeed, despite it enabling voices we disagree with. 

Demorest: “I plan to participate again in the future, because it is so important to make sure everyone has access to voting, and to make sure voting happens properly.”

Khalil: “There are about nine of us that day, all from different walks of life and political affiliations, bound to do one thing — help people vote. Caitlyn is our Chair. Her day job is at Amici’s and she’s in school for social work at Wayne State. We’ve worked the election polls together in the past and she is grace under pressure. She makes a very stressful job look easy. Caitlyn gives us our ‘jobs’ throughout the day. I am assigned to work the e-poll book with a young woman in high school. She’s not old enough to vote but she’s an experienced election worker. In between the rush of people she tells me about how much high school sucks virtually and her dreams of maybe going into public service. I love her optimism and try to bottle some of it as she talks.”

Cathy Csercse, 32, who worked at Foote Elementary in Lincoln Park: “I can’t stop thinking about how everyone was acting, like voting is something to be revered and celebrated. It was awesome and humbling to watch everyone, with all different political views, share that same experience.”

Left, Michele Oberholtzer, courtesy photo

Oberholtzer: “I got to see the son of a dear friend of mine who has died, the woman who loves me for helping her buy her home, so many neighbors and friends, people who told me, ‘I voted for you,’ the man who beat me in the election and will be my representative, speakers of many languages, people of many ages, and parents who brought their kids along for the voting experience even though many were far too young to have any chance of remembering it. I am so in love with my beloved community and so grateful for reminders of a working system when so much of what I hear and see says otherwise.”

Ashley Woods Branch and Kate Abbey-Lambertz contributed reporting.

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