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Detroit prepares for "army" of challengers on Election Day

absentee ballot boxes in a large room
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Election officials in Detroit and elsewhere are preparing to deal with challengers at the polls this week.

Election challengers are not new. They can work at polling place or absentee voter precincts. They can look at poll books, challenge a person’s eligibility to vote, and question the actions of election inspectors. They cannot engage voters directly, or make indiscriminate challenges.

Chris Thomas is Michigan’s former elections director, now serving as a special advisor to Detroit city clerk Janice Winfrey’s office.

Thomas said challengers must be orderly, and blanket challenges will not be tolerated.

“We will not tolerate massive challenges without a reason to challenge,” Thomas said. “You don’t just get to decide out of thin air that somebody’s not a registered voter and challenge them. You need reasons for that.”

Some conservative groups have recruited what they call an “army” of challengersto work in Detroit polling places, and to watch over absentee vote-counting at the TCF Center.

The TCF Center is likely to be under special scrutiny. That’s because of past irregularities in Detroit elections that have affected absentee votes in particular—and led to a “partnership” with the Michigan Secretary of State’s office to make sure this election goes smoothly.

In Detroit’s August primary, the number of ballots counted did not match the number of voters in poll books in over 70% of absentee precincts. There’s no evidence that was the result of fraud or impacted results—Winfrey blamed it largely on new, inexperienced poll workers who either made mistakes or didn’t finish the job. An audit of similar problems in Detroit’s 2016 general election found it was the result of “human error.”

Winfrey said Detroit is prepared to avoid those problems this time around, with new electronic ballot tabulators and close to 10,000 better-trained poll workers ready to go. However, some conservative groups, responding to President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the election will be rife with fraud, are prepared to blanket the city with challengers—with one group, the Michigan Conservative Coalition, even calling on people to sign up as TCF Center election workers to “guard the vote.”

The Michigan Conservative Coalition did not respond to Michigan Radio’s request for comment on how many people it had recruited to serve as challengers or TCF Center workers.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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