Persistent voting problems in Detroit elections get magnified by COVID-19

A growing chorus of election officials in Detroit are worried discrepancies in the city's August Primary may signal larger problems are on the horizon for the General Election in November.

A mixture of poor training, fatigued poll workers coalescing with a record turnout of absentee ballots led to more than 70% of voting precincts reporting issues with the final vote count.

And during a year when Michigan represents one of the pivotal states during an extremely contentious political environment, election day mistakes could spell trouble for residents concerned about accurate voter tallies.

"Absolutely (it was a perfect storm), and what most of us have forgotten is the country and specifically the state of Michigan was shut down," said Vice Chairman of the Wayne County Board of Canvasser's Jonathan Kinloch. "And that cut into our training time for the election workers."

Even before 2020 threw a pandemic-sized wrench at election day in August, Detroit had reported issues with elections in the past. 

In the past, issues have risen after absentee ballots that were properly mailed in and counted but weren't properly recorded and tracked by workers afterward. By the time absentee voter counting boards began counting ballots on the day of the election, there were inconsistencies between the number of ballots mailed in and the number recorded by workers.

That happened again this last primary.

"When the ballots were tabulated, they were tabulated fine, but when it came to reconciling, recording, notating, and those requirements that are stipulated under Michigan election law - folks did not follow those particular processes," said Kinloch.

Election officials from the local clerk level to Secretary Jocelyn Benson have warned of these kinds of problems getting exacerbated by fewer workers working more hours with improper training and filing more absentee ballots than before. 

On top of those barriers, Michigan's election law - considered one of the strictest in the country - doesn't allow recounts of ballots. 

"What needs to happen is they need to get rid of many sections of the election law which prohibit ballots from being recounted," Kinloch said. "We're the only state in the union that figures out a way for ballots to not be counted. This was just a problem waiting to happen."

Some officials have asked the Secretary of State to intervene and oversee the counting process.

In a state whose electoral votes were decided by a 10,000-vote margin in 2016, in a majority Black city and reliable Democratic voting bloc, many residents have expressed concern that persisting election day issues could spur larger problems beyond Detroit.