In the last two months I’ve seen all sorts of e-mails and comments from “they are stealing the election” and “Detroit voters are being cheated” to “Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey is deep in with the White power structure to take our vote,” all carefully aimed at creating enough panic in the public to basically render the legitimate voice of Detroiters at the ballot box meaningless or useless.
With such comments it begs the question: What is the point of convincing a voter in the city that their vote will count in the general election?
If such highly irresponsible opinions or comments seriously missing the facts are being circulated as legitimate arguments or points of contention to raise legitimate issues with the electoral process, it creates even more panic for the average person.
And it is still more troubling when such accusations, without shred of evidence or merit, are coming from individuals who carry some influence in the political process.
Granted voter intimidation is real, and voter fraud is all too common in the long protracted struggle of the African American political experience and the continued fight for voting rights. While it is titillating to wallow and wriggle in conspiracy theories and whispers about the political power structure because it makes for great gossip over dinner table, let us not put Detroit in the Mississippi column so quickly when the facts do not bare that out.
Let’s not begin to define Detroit as the Florida of our current political dispensation when the evidence in support of such polemic political sentiment is far-fetched. It’s easier to make highly and explosive charges of voter fraud in Detroit than it is to look for the facts and the details that would suggest such massive alleged irregularities.
But while there are valid issues with the electoral process as evidenced by past and some present legal challenges, it does not amount to the grand conspiracy that there is a concerted effort by the power structure to steal the vote in Detroit.
Yes, our institutions like the Detroit Department of Elections are not perfect, but it does not excuse this body that is supposed to function with electoral integrity to ensure that not only should every vote count but that the process through which votes are counted is fair and clean. And it is one that should extol the virtues of the rule of law, democracy and good governance.
Whenever there is semblance of irregularity it needs to be challenged. But challenging some of the irregularities that are often common features of the electoral process should not qualify anyone to conclude that Detroit is the new North Carolina, the Southern state that has demonstrated in the eyes of the nation a deliberate effort to suppress the vote of African Americans.
This style of political conversation is profitable and we see how news organizations like Fox News have built an empire out of political conspiracy fed by a well-oiled propaganda machine that has sought to make President Obama the anti-Christ and the one who is making America un-American.
The political stardom of the Glenn Becks of the world was built squarely on the altar of conspiracy theories, feeding into people’s minds what doesn’t exist, but what makes them scared. And innocent-information-seeking-minds kept worshiping on the altar of demagoguery, clamoring for more because they didn’t know any better.
But in Detroit we owe it to ourselves and in the interest of civic discourse and honest political engagement to spare the general election of the circus of political conspiracy. We owe it to the guardians of voting rights and the legacies of men and women of mark who fought to ensure that the Black vote carried the same weight as that of their White counterpart to guarantee that every vote counts.
Thus, to dismiss about 20,000 votes that were cast in the primary election on the basis of lacking procedural marks clearly flies in the face of protecting voting rights.
What message does it send to the world in disqualifying thousands of votes cast when those votes are not being disputed, rather it’s the process of marking the ballot boxes that are in dispute?
But since full blown conspiracy theory has it that there is an all-out effort to steal the election, it appears plausible to call into question the legitimacy of those votes that were actually cast even when the issue is the fact that the boxes containing the votes were missing the required hash marks, a process by which the votes are counted on poll books. In this case the 20,000 votes at issue were entered without the hash marks, leaving the matter as a numerical discrepancy, not a voter discrepancy.
And since race is at the center of this mayoral election where Mike Duggan, a White candidate, is up against Benny Napoleon, the African American candidate, it is all the more interesting as those thousands of votes which belonged to Duggan are now being called into question. If the votes are tossed out, Napoleon would be the winner of the election as opposed to the primary write-in candidate Duggan.
And lawyers for Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett made a stunning recommendation last week that because of the absence of hash marks, the thousands of votes should be invalidated as a recommendation to the Wayne County Board of Canvassers which rejected the recommendation of nullifying of the primary votes, because of the absence of hash marks which is not a state law.
Clearly, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey has an obligation to ensure that poll workers follow the recommendation of using hash marks, and if they didn’t those poll workers at the precincts involved in this case should be fired and never used again in future elections. Some can call it a dereliction of duty on the part of the election department, but those who were delegated this assignment at the precincts in question to maintain voting integrity have an obligation as well to carry out their assignments faithfully.
The election snafu led to an exchange of barbs between two of Detroit’s most influential female political leaders.
Winfrey did not see any reason why the votes shouldn’t be counted since they are legitimate votes, and Garrett simply stood by a policy, not law, that only ballots with hash marks should be counted. But the battle goes beyond the flap between Winfrey and Garrett, and some, including the Duggan campaign, have suggested that there is a deliberate attempt to meddle with Detroit’s democracy by those who opposed Duggan’s candidacy.
Clerk Garrett’s brother is the powerful union boss Al Garrett who runs AFSCME Local 25, which has funded labor activist Robert Davis, the man who has challenged almost every issue in the public domain in court today. And Davis, who has long set his eyes on Duggan and successfully knocked him off the Detroit ballot twice, which forced supporters of Duggan to push for a write-in campaign, is now calling for the invalidation of the 20,000 votes cast for Duggan because of the lack of hash marks. Davis has indicted by the federal government on charges of stealing money from Highland Park’s school board. He has maintained his innocence while awaiting trial.
Clerk Winfrey’s husband, Tyrone Winfrey, a former member of the Detroit Board of Education, is the chief of staff to the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), an effort that was birthed by Gov. Rick Snyder to address the plight of failing students and whose funding model has drawn the ire of some education activists, including Davis, since it was set up.
Thus the power dynamics and political relationships, whether involved or not behind the personalities of the political leaders in this case, continue to feed the work of the conspiracy theorists about the elections in Detroit.
“Election administrators should be people who are ready to lay down their lives to preserve or prot
ect 20,000 votes,” said Vince Keenan, the founder of Publius, the reputable voter information site. “The votes are not in question. So far as anybody knows at this point these are legitimately cast votes and someone made the recommendation to discount them.”
Keenan said there is no historical precedent for eliminating that many votes because “the crux of the problem is not who the votes were for…the crux of the problem began when it became apparent that there has been a procedural issue in the way the votes were counted.”
But the votes could have been easily verified by hand counting the ballots or doing whatever is needed to satisfy the electoral process. Now the issue goes to the state where the election director, Chris Thomas, has already signaled that it is unheard of to discount that many votes in a dispute that only has to do with hash marks.
“You simply don’t throw out the will of the people on a procedural win,” Keenan explained. “Cathy Garrett generally has a reputation for this. The question is who made this call (to invalidate the votes) and how did this seem like a satisfactory remedy?”
But here is the other problem. The lack of trust in Detroit government allows for conspiracies around election takeovers to thrive and to be seen as credible discourse in the overall political wellbeing of the city.
“Part of what has happened here is we have created a toxic environment where regular challenges over minor issues are allowed to cast a shadow of doubt over the electoral process,” Keenan said. “It is a toxic environment for the function of democracy. We are more concerned theoretically with the idea of an emergency manager disenfranchising the people than actually counting votes.”
Procedures have to be followed in elections, which is why some have gone to the point of calling for a Department of Justice investigation into the Detroit primary election when it is not even clear if this procedural dispute merits the involvement of a DOJ investigation.
“If it turns out that mistakes have been made in the counting of ballots after votes are legitimately cast, then we have a standard to uphold because that cast ballot deserves the utmost priority in terms of tabulation in determining what that voter contributed to in the election.”
Both Duggan and Napoleon have expressed the desire to have votes counted fairly, even as the latter called for a DOJ investigation. And Winfrey, according to Keenan, “adapted to what was anticipated to be a large write-in vote. It would have been great if tabulation marks have been used. But at some level she did.”
And let’s take the conspiracy theory off the table and deal with the facts only as they evolve in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. The State Board of Canvassers has ordered the write-in votes to be counted, which is what Wayne County should have done.