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Detroit's election problems draw attention, and candidates, to city clerk race

Aug 7, 2017

A race that usually flies under the radar is shaping up as one of the more interesting contests in Tuesday’s primary elections.

The race for city clerk in Detroit has drawn more attention, and candidates, than usual this election cycle.

Six candidates are looking to unseat three-term city clerk Janice Winfrey. The top two vote-getters in the primary will advance to the general election this November.

There’s been a lot of discontent with Detroit elections in the past several years, especially after a problem-riddled voting process during the 2016 presidential election.

Heaster Wheeler is one of Winfrey’s challengers. He’s held many roles in Detroit over the years, including being head of the city's NAACP chapter.

Wheeler says there are currently “lots of questions about integrity” in Winfrey’s office.

He says many Detroit seniors have told him they used to vote absentee.  

“But because they don’t trust what might happen to their absentee ballot, now they actually go the polls,” Wheeler said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Wheeler has picked up endorsements from some key Detroit groups, including the historically-important Black Slate.

Garlin Gilchrist is another Winfrey challenger. He’s an engineer by training, who also worked for President Obama’s campaign and as a voting rights advocate. Most recently, he was director of innovation and emerging technology for the city of Detroit.

“I wrote the city’s policy on open data and transparency,” Gilchrist said. “And I learned, as I was writing the policy, that that actually should have been the city clerk’s job.”

Gilchrist says he was inspired by to run by his experience voting at his Detroit precinct last November, where “everything that could go wrong at a polling place went wrong.”

“The machine broke down, we ran out of materials, we ran out of privacy screens to cover the ballots, ran out of pens,” Gilchrist said. “And what was most chilling is that the people who were working our poll, they didn’t really know what to do. They weren’t prepared to be successful because they weren’t adequately trained.”

Gilchrist, Wheeler and other challengers emphasize more frequent and flexible poll worker training as a key improvement needed at the clerk’s office.

Winfrey says she has improved training after problems last November. The city also has new voting equipment. Winfrey says that should help avoid the many problems that plagued Detroit precincts in the last presidential election.

Michigan’s aborted presidential recount found that vote tallies couldn’t be reconciled in more than half of all Detroit precincts, meaning that electronic poll book tallies didn’t match the number of ballots cast. That made those precincts legally ineligible for recount. A state audit later attributed those discrepancies to “an abundance of human error,” but found no evidence of voter fraud.