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Detroit election workers describe vote counting effort amid protests

Crowds outside TCF Center
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
A crowd gathered outside the Detroit TCF Center vote tally room Wednesday as election workers tabulated absentee votes.

Across the state this week, Michiganders worked overtime to make sure an election could take place during a pandemic. And in Detroit, it was a team effort: Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office helped the city clerk’s office ensure Michigan’s biggest city could count ballots—including thousands and thousands of absentee votes, which need to be prepared for tabulation by hand.


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At the TCF Center in downtown Detroit, where the North American International Auto Show is normally held, election workers spent Tuesday and Wednesday counting ballots while poll watchers and Democratic, Republican, and nonpartisan election challengers looked on.

The atmosphere in the TCF Center was pretty calm on Tuesday—the Detroit Police Department asked a few aggressive challengers to leave, but it was a rare occurrence, says Outlier Media executive director Candice Fortman. She volunteered as a temporary worker for the clerk’s office.

But on Wednesday, after many states’ initial results were released, the feeling in the precinct changed. A group of mostly right-wing election challengers gathered outside the room and chanted “Stop the count!” and “Stop the vote!” Some people in that group weren’t allowed to enter the vote tally room. And even inside, onsite volunteers say, many election challengers shifted their tone.

“On Wednesday when I went back, what I saw was an aggressive change in temperature and direct harassment of the poll workers,” Fortman said. “And that harassment really did come, really connected to the folks that checked in as GOP challengers.”

Fortman says there were rules for how many challengers could enter the TCF Center, in order to comply with fire code and public health guidelines amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Election challengers in the room were also supposed to be present in equal numbers from each political affiliation.

“When you see challenger groups saying that they were not being allowed into the room, a lot of that is because there were already too many challengers in the room to begin with,” Fortman said.

Khalilah Gaston, an urban planning consultant who lives in Detroit, worked as an election observer for the Democratic Party at the TCF Center. She said the room on Wednesday was tense, with some challengers photographing and videotaping election workers, which is not allowed.

“Election workers were literally doing their work with people over their shoulders, close enough to touch them, leaning in and using, in some cases, binoculars to observe what they were doing,” Gaston said. “People were being asked while they were working if they were Democrats or Republican, which is against the law.”

You can read the full rights and responsibilities of challengers and poll watchers in Michigan here

Both Fortman and Gaston noted the racial disparity between the Republican challengers in the room and the election workers who were counting the absentee ballots.

“You're talking about a city that’s still almost 90% Black, you’re talking about election workers that were at least 85% Black, and most of the GOP observers and challengers were majority white,” Gaston said. “You look at those optics, of having white people harass, berate, physically intimidate Black people—the optics of that are chilling.”

Gaston says things came to a fever pitch when challengers chanted “stop the vote,” and at some points on Wednesday, people challenged every single vote at some election workers’ tables.

“Before ballots could even get to the table, challengers and observers, in some instances, were saying, ‘I challenge all of the ballots,’” she said. “When you have our servicemen and women who risk their lives, and those were the last ballots to be counted, and those were the ballots that were being challenged the most. It’s like, that’s where it was last night.”

Fortman said her experience working the polls helped renew her energy for protecting democracy in this country, and that she’s grateful for the election workers’ hard work.

“They did not leave until every vote was counted,” she said. “That is what democracy looks like, that is what civic dedication looks like, and I think what we have to focus on is how incredible it is that all of this turns because normal, everyday residents step up to do the work.”

Gaston says she realized she’ll do this work in every election in order to defend the right to vote. But that’s not the only thing that kept her in the room last night, she added.

“I also stayed for my daughters. I have a nine-year-old and a two-year-old. My nine-year-old, she wanted to be there,” Gaston said. “I want them to live in a country that lives up to the values that it proclaims. That’s what I want for my girls.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

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