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Survey: Most Detroiters involved in their communities and plan to vote, but doubt officials share their concerns

Jodi Westrick
Michigan Public

Detroit is a city as crucial to the American democratic project as any. It is one of the nation’s largest majority-Black cities, and many residents were alive when the civil rights movement pushed the country to extend the protection of its laws to Black citizens, including the right to vote.

Detroit is also the largest city in Michigan, a state known for historically close presidential contests. The number of electoral votes at stake often makes winning Michigan a key objective for both Democrats and Republicans.

But we know very little about why Detroiters do or don’t vote, and which issues they most want elected officials to address.

To gain more insight, Outlier Media commissioned the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study to survey 1,100 Detroiters in April about their civic priorities and reasons for voting or not voting.

Detroiters typically turn out to vote in high numbers in presidential elections. In the 2020 election, about half of registered voters cast a ballot. Turnout dropped to 34% in the following election in 2022.

Local elections empower voters to choose officials with significant influence over issues voters say are important, such as safety and housing. But in those contests, the turnout numbers are typically dismal. Only 19% of Detroit voters turned out in the most recent local election, in November 2021.

The reasons Detroiters engage in the political process and how this aligns with their involvement in their own communities has not been thoroughly examined by media and political organizations — until now.

Most Detroiters plan to vote and are active in their communities

Distrust in the system and dissatisfaction with candidates deterred some Detroiters from voting, but they remain engaged in their neighborhoods and communities. Nearly half of those surveyed have talked to others in their neighborhood about dealing with a community issue or problem in the past year, 24% attended a meeting about an issue, and a quarter have done volunteer work in the last year. More than half of all respondents said it is important for them to live in Detroit, 56% expect to live in the city long-term, and 41% said they want to be more involved in their community.

“Community engagement takes many forms in Detroit, from generous donations to community organizations, to grassroots discussions of local issues, to hands-on collaborations between neighbors to tackle community challenges,” said Mara Ostfeld, faculty lead for the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study. “Recognizing and actively supporting these diverse expressions of community involvement is vital to fostering stronger, more resilient neighborhoods.”

More than half of the survey participants said their priorities for the city align with their neighbors, but 40% believe elected officials care only “a little,” about what is important to them, and about 16% said people like them don’t influence local government actions at all. Even so, 68% of Detroiters think they themselves can make a small or moderate difference in the city.

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield did not respond to multiple requests to comment on these findings.

Despite this skepticism about local government, 82% of Detroiters surveyed say they are registered to vote at their current address.

Which Detroiters vote and why?

Detroiters who took our survey said they vote more regularly than turnout statistics suggest. For example, 71% of our sample said they regularly vote in midterm elections, and more than 80% say they vote in presidential elections. Seventy percent indicated they would definitely vote in the next general election.

That 70% figure would be high for Detroit or any city. However, the actual turnout of Detroiters for federal elections is higher than it might at first seem.

Detroit elections administrator Daniel Baxter said that rules designed to protect people from being taken off the voter rolls just because they don’t regularly vote means the number of registered voters in towns and cities across the country is higher than the number of actual voters.

“All over the country now you have all this deadwood on the voter rolls,” said Baxter, who explained that of Detroit’s 513,000 registered voters, about 127,000 are what he called “inactive.”

Baxter said election officials remove deceased Detroiters’ names from voter rolls every month, but that the process of removing living, inactive voters — many of whom have likely moved out of the city — is a years-long process governed by federal law.

Baxter also says Detroiters shouldn’t base their voting decisions on the turnout of others.

“People should vote. Period,” he said. “Whether 1% of the population votes or 99% of the population votes, you need to get out there and vote.

“It is one of our rights that gives us access to our inalienable rights, which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If you want to enjoy the fullness of the bounty that America can provide, these things are inexorably linked to the ballot box.”

There are some Detroiters who may not take Baxter’s advice. About 13% of residents who are eligible to vote said they are unlikely to do so. Latinx Detroiters were overrepresented in this group, often citing beliefs that their vote doesn’t matter and dissatisfaction with candidates. Most of these Detroiters are not disconnected from their communities — just the political process; 67% have engaged in community discussions or volunteer work in the past year, for example.

We asked the survey respondents to identify issues they want local and federal officials to address. These questions were open-ended, so Detroiters had the freedom to say whatever they wanted. Respondents mentioned crime, safety and violence as a concern most frequently, with 37% mentioning a variation of these issues. The next most pressing issues were property blight and vacancy, followed by affordable housing and other housing issues.

As for issues our respondents want the U.S. government to address, inflation and the cost of living were mentioned most frequently, with 16% of respondents highlighting this concern. Health care, crime and safety followed closely behind, each cited as top priorities by more than 10% of respondents.

In the upcoming presidential election, 58% of the Detroiters we surveyed said they have a “very unfavorable” view of former President Donald Trump, and 9% said their view was “mostly unfavorable.” As for President Joe Biden, 16% said they had a “very unfavorable” view, with “mostly unfavorable” making up another 11%.

We have published all the survey questions and responses. We will continue to analyze the results and share insights throughout the summer.

This article first appeared on Outlier Media and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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