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Higher Standards for Detroit Elections

We elect our city clerk to triple check her work. We trust our clerk to prepare for the unexpected. And we hold our clerk to the very highest standards, because if our vote is in jeopardy, our voice is too.
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Detroit is not so unique. While voter turnout in Detroit's November 5th municipal election was dismally low at 25.4 percent, we're actually doing better than other major cities like Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta. Each of these cities saw lower turnout than Detroit in their recent mayoral elections. We do, however, face other challenges. When Detroit emerges from state control, Mike Duggan will take the reins of a city vastly different from the one we know today. Amid the city's anticipated transitions and changes, we must also demand better run municipal elections.

While we reflect on this election, it is important we remember the events leading up to November 5th. This election did not run smoothly and we voters found ourselves repeatedly scratching our heads. First, came City Clerk Janice Winfrey's flawed interpretation of Section 2-101 of the Detroit City Charter, which states that a person seeking elective office must be "a qualified and registered voter of the City of Detroit for one (1) year at the time of filing for office." Winfrey gave Duggan the "OK" as a qualified candidate, but her interpretation did not stand up in court, and Duggan was removed from the ballot.

More confusion ensued when counting Duggan's write-in votes. The Wayne County Board of Canvassers refused to certify the primary election results, citing that poll books didn't contain hash marks corresponding to the write-in votes cast. The Board of State Canvassers ruled in the clerk's favor, but open and broken seals in two precincts left voters uneasy and lacking something important: faith in the integrity of our election process. Furthermore, the recount delayed the mailing of general election absentee ballots.

There arose another issue when Winfrey's office miscounted her opponent D.Etta Wilcoxon's nominating petition signatures and kicked her off the ballot. This decision was later reversed in court and, along with the debate over Duggan's residency, delayed the mailing of nearly 28,000 primary absentee ballots. And again, the clerk's office left voters confused when it rented billboards that advertised the incorrect date of the general election by neglecting to approve the final proofs.

These recent examples highlight the importance of measuring twice and cutting once. The problems in the primary spurred the Department of Justice to take the unusual step of sending election monitors in for the general election. Before making any decision that affects candidates' access to the ballot or voters' access to the ballot box, our city clerk must do her due diligence in ensuring that her decisions are sound.

Training our poll workers must be of paramount importance. Because our city is strapped for cash, our clerk needs to think outside the box about alternative ways to fund additional training for thousands of elections workers. Not only should we engage the foundation and nonprofit communities, whose interests lie in maintaining the integrity of our elections, but we should also look for support in funding efforts to get out the vote in the city. I urge Winfrey to retain and expand the Vote in Person centers that allow Detroiters to cast their absentee ballots in person prior to Election Day.

If we're going to have faith that every one of our votes matters in this next election and beyond, we need to also have faith that every one of our votes will be counted.

When our vote is on the line, there is no room for careless mistakes. We elect our city clerk to triple check her work. We trust our clerk to prepare for the unexpected. And we hold our clerk to the very highest standards, because if our vote is in jeopardy, our voice is too.

This op-ed was originally published in the November 14, 2013 edition of the Michigan Citizen.

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