Detroit’s primary is coming up on Aug. 3. That election and every one that follows is run by the City Clerk, whose position is also up for a vote this year.
The last time Detroit held an election, it drew international attention.
In November, crowds of Donald Trump’s supporters flocked downtown as workers certified the city’s presidential vote. Joe Biden was winning, and Detroit would put him over the top. But the protests continued for weeks fueled by the former president’s false claims of election fraud and vote-rigging.
As the current City Clerk, Janice Winfrey says the shadow of doubt cast on Detroit’s elections endangered her life.
“They approached me coming out of my house, going for a walk. I had COVID and said that it was because of me that Trump lost,” Winfrey says. “Since then, I’ve had to apply for my CCL. I have to carry a weapon. I never want to live like that just for doing my job. I’m a nonpartisan clerk.”
Winfrey says her office is still dealing with the aftermath of the November election, even though state audits upheld how it handled the count.
“In Detroit, of the 173,000 absentee ballots that were cast, only 17 were out of balance,” she says.
If re-elected, Winfrey would be among the longest-serving elected officials in Detroit’s history. There have been consistent complaints throughout, like last-minute changes at voting precincts and difficulty finding city records. But Winfrey says she’s made improvements — such as drop boxes, satellite voting and no longer requiring stamps on a return ballot — over the 16 years she’s served in office.
Winfrey, who is going into her fifth term, says she almost didn’t run in this election.
“But when I saw these suppression bills coming our way and I know what to do so that our citizens aren’t affected. I felt that I got do it to get through this. I’ve got to get us through this.”
The three candidates seeking to replace Winfrey say they would be better at handling the responsibilities of City Clerk.
Concerns of Voter Suppression
Perennial candidate Beverly Kindle-Walker says she’s running to demand accountability and accuracy.
“I believe our clerk freestyles. Because we have suffered from her inability to follow the law,” she says.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sued Winfrey over the clerk’s backlog of ballot applications. About 70,000 sat in her office for weeks. Afterward, Winfrey agreed to process the applications within 24 hours of receipt.
Kindle-Walker works as a legislative assistant to a Wayne County Commissioner and ran against the county treasurer in previous elections. But she’s never held public office. She says if elected she’d find workers who care deeply about voting and increase their pay.
“If you’re not able to motivate the voters, the workers and everybody to participate fully in the process, then what good are you?”
Kindle-Walker opposes Winfrey’s decision to reduce voting locations this election season. Detroit has 20 ballot drop boxes this year, down from 32 last November. Winfrey says she’s being financially responsible — she thinks only 13% of the city will turn out to vote this year.
Kindle-Walker says actions like that require state intervention.
“I welcome their takeover because obviously, we needed some help. And we continue to need help and as long as that clerk is in office, we’re going to have the same problem with voter suppression in the city of Detroit.”
“Accountability and Transparency”
At 29, Denzel McCampbell is the youngest candidate running for City Clerk. He says communication is the cornerstone of his campaign.
“I run into folks all the time on the campaign trail right now that are telling me that they didn’t even know we had an election on August 3rd and that’s a function of the Detroit City Clerk’s office,” he says.
McCampbell is a community organizer and promotes voting rights among other progressive causes. He sits on Detroit’s Charter Revision Commission and previously served as Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s communications director. McCampbell says he’d make the city’s records more accessible by reworking how they’re posted online.
“Because it’s all about accountability and transparency. And we’re just not seeing that right now. You shouldn’t have to call down to get the voting record. You should be able to get that in one click. But also making sure that when you do make that call, your call is being answered,” he says.
McCampbell says he’d establish a Civic Education Corps.
“And this will have folks in communities in each district that are going door to door to talk about elections, to talk about government. But also having an effort to say, do you want to be a part of the civic education process? The civic engagement process, our voting process, come be a poll worker.”
Engaging the Community
While McCampbell would be a newcomer to the position, candidate Mike Ri’Chard is familiar with the office of Detroit City Clerk. He ran for the seat in 2009, and he worked with former clerk Jackie Currie.
“She trained me and gave me all the information to become clerk. I am the only candidate that’s qualified to train poll workers because I was certified by the state of Michigan as a trainer.”
Ri’Chard is a legislative aide to the Wayne County Commission and used to work for the City of Detroit and Rep. John Conyers. He says Winfrey has not been clear to the public about election dates and security.
Ri’Chard says the City Clerk needs to expand its pool of talent, such as engaging 16-year-olds and other community members.
“I would have them work at the polls on Election Day so they would understand the process. I would go to union halls, I would go to civic organizations, I would go to churches, fraternities and sororities, and I would say, hey we need your people.”
All four candidates may have different approaches to the job, but they agree on one thing — they’re concerned about Republican efforts on the state and national level to change voting laws. Each would like to see more access to voting, not less.
After the August primary, two candidates will move forward to the general election on Nov. 2. Whoever wins will have a lot of say about the future of Detroit’s elections — and the future of its democracy.
Listen: Three candidates are challenging Janice Winfrey for Detroit City Clerk in August primary.