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Planned Confusion and Aborted Integrity: A Personal Look into Challenges and Changes of Detroit Absentee Voter Counting Boards


by C.E. Sanborn | March 25, 2024


It was the best of times and the worst of times…(sigh). My apologies for channeling my inner Charles Dickens. The man could see the world for what it was: Imperfectly vile and wondrously good, yet neither exclusively at any one time, if one was not blinded by personal biases. Most days I try to keep my predispositions at bay, but I found a recent experience at Detroit’s Absentee Voter Counting Board (AVCB) stupefying.


I had been serving as an election inspector for the city of Detroit for two general elections. This was my second primary election at their AVCB, and I had high hopes for the day.


You see, the good men and women of the Detroit Election Bureau had trained me a month prior and a few times before, so I felt prepared for the position. I mistakenly assumed the large city that frequently deals with elections and ballot proposal initiatives would have standard practices in place from one election to the next.


I arrived at Huntington Place on the first day of a week-long process of absentee ballot processing. As I entered the room, I was pleased to recognize most of workers from previous elections. Little did my fellow inspectors and I know we were walking into a mine field. What was this first dramatic change from the month prior? Well, that would be the lack of computers and monitors for the election inspectors and poll challengers.


“What the hell?” A fellow election inspector stared at me. “The computers are gone.”

“Maybe they’re late setting them up,” I replied.


With the last few changes at these Absentee Voter (AV) counting boards, I had learned to be flexible, so as to honor the system to ensure a valid, honest, and trustworthy election for my fellow voters. If I were not present, who else could possibly ensure the integrity of this lopsided representation in Detroit, right? I felt determined to remain positive and put on my big girl pants.


But position Number One at each AV counting board involves scanning each ballot's barcode into the database of voters, essentially known as the Electronic Voter book. How were we going to process these barcodes without a machine? I wondered. An election inspector at another counting board asked about the “elephant” in the room.


“I hope you’re not referring to me,” I joked.


She laughed, yet the question remained unanswered.


A section supervisor explained that the supervisors had received instruction on the prior Saturday that we were to follow a manual method. She said they were told that we had received the manual instruction as well.


We had not, we explained. We were trained in methods and tasks significantly different than their instruction.


Realization dawned on these kind and bewildered section supervisors that we needed to figure out what was going on and what exactly we were to do. The confusion delayed our start. As we sat and waited, new workers and volunteers, though unfamiliar with the process changes, muttered that having no computer processing was a big change from their original training session, and they doubted they would commit to doing this civil service again.


Election worker “regulars” at the opposite end of the hall started much as they normally would. They opened a 50-set bunch and began to rip open their assigned ballot envelopes. The folks at my table looked on. Should we do the same? We asked. Our section supervisor had the good sense to suggest we “hold off.”


About 20 minutes passed. Then a words boomed over the speaker system. “No one should be doing anything yet.” It was the voice of the guy in charge.


Some tables paid no attention. Amazed, my counting board looked on.


“No one should be processing anything yet.” The leader's voice sounded muffled.


“Did he say stop processing ballots?” one of my counting board mates asked.


“Don’t we have to get those zero tapes first?” I wondered out loud.


“We haven’t even been issued the oath,” another said.


Our dear table leader gave us permission to count only the ballots. We were to ensure the number matched the number in the batch of papers that she handed out from a thin, blue binder with dividers. She pulled out a batch of papers from the covered postal box we use to hold the ballots to be processed but were simply paper clipped and matched the other set.


“Don’t use the one from the binder. Use these,” she advised, referring to the paper-clipped group. She re-shuffled the other papers and put them back into their binding.


The paper-clipped group read similar to a Poll Book, but was greatly abbreviated. It only included the names of voters for which we had ballots in the covered postal box along with their address and ballot number. Almost 200 to count. Not nearly the several hundred I had counted on other occasions, including a primary election like this one. We were told we were only processing ballots received so far. We would have more the next day, we were assured.


This doesn’t bode well for the extended voting law and all it was sold to us as for voters’ convenience, I thought. If it’s not being utilized by voters, what a waste of resources. The city could use that money for other altruistic matters.


Considering our list was so abbreviated, I wondered how we were to verify if these were valid ballots and if there were any duplicates or other names at the addresses listed.

Unfortunately, we were never to learn the answers, as we never came into contact with a full poll book, in paper or electronic form. I hope SOMEONE somewhere was looking out for this important step during the receipt of each ballot before it hit our counting boards.


Next, we were instructed to check to see if there was a “process stamp” or initials and date of a city official who processed the ballot as “received” on the front end somewhere outside of the space and time of our hall. Luckily, we had no issues in confirming that each envelope had one, but other Counting Boards weren’t so lucky.


Red flags, signaling a question for a Section Supervisor, began to pop up. My educated guess was that these ballots’ barcodes were pre-scanned before their arrival at Huntington Place. That would explain how the abbreviated poll list was generated for each day.


At last, we were issued the Oath of Office and had Zero tapes printed. But this did not happen in the same order for every counting board due to the frenzy of red flags and the murmur of similar sounding questions, all impatiently raised, all demanding answers of section supervisors and table leaders.


Did I mention the heat? Stressed supervisors and leaders were darting about everywhere, helping counting boards not even assigned to them but in need of attention.


Considering that most workers were familiar with the process after helping with the last several elections, this flurry of questions was completely unexpected. It demonstrated that this new process was not as simple as the upper echelons assumed it was going to be. We overheard one question asked several times. Then the boss sounded more instructions over the speaker system.


Throughout, my AVCB team rolled with the punches. We didn’t need to ask many questions as we paid attention to those occurring around us. Our supervisor and table leader appeared grateful for our team of four’s patience and courtesy. Despite our different walks of life, we extended and received mutual respect.


THE ACTUAL PROCESSING BEGINS


About two hours in, we were finally permitted to open our first batch of 50 ballots. Person One had the privilege of slicing open the ballot envelope while possessing the abbreviated Poll Book. Once the ballot was opened, Person One handed it to Person Two, who then removed the secrecy sleeve from the ballot envelope and handed the secrecy sleeve containing the still unexposed ballot to Person Three. Person Two then confirmed the name on the ballot envelope with Person One and their poll book list. Person Two confirmed the ballot number with Person Three.


Once the number was confirmed, Person Three ripped off the ballot tab and exposed the ballot for the first time, placing it into a covered postal bin. Here, Person Four then flattened and collected the ballot to be tabulated in the tabulator next to the counting board. Chain of custody was maintained easily through this part of the process, at least as the ballots never left the table site.


Once a batch of 50 was processed, Person Four then stood up and recorded the tabulator beginning number on his or her large ballot envelope. This step assured that the tabulator read each ballot. For various reasons issues arose with ballots booted back out.

On one occasion, something happened that I have never seen before. A ballot was left without a single oval filled in. The NO VOTE ballot was processed with a simple override of the Supervisor.


Once the batch was tabulated, it was unlocked from the bin in the Tabulator, inserted into the large processed ballot envelope, and secured by a section head into the ballot lock box next to Person Four. The process for the first batch was now complete.


We had three more batches to go, and because we worked efficiently together, the processing was a breeze. But our ears confirmed the process was not so easy for the surrounding tables.


Fast forward a few hours, and we completed our work. Now, the job was to find someone to close out our table. Our red flag popped up and down for an hour as Section heads, table leads, and the Big Boss moved here and there. “Just one more minute,” became the popular phrase. The Big Boss’s tables were dismissed, even though we had finished well before them.


In their impatience, some folks started to leave before an official announcement was declared. This ended up being a bad thing, as the chain of custody was now without a balance of at least one Democrat and one Republican. The few remaining Republicans were now asked to sign as witnesses of the official seals placed on the ballot boxes at station Number 4 of each Counting Board. I signed for one other table’s seals next to my own, as the three from that Counting Board had already left.


Too late, it was announced: Do not leave till every seal is signed for and placed. Most are gone, but my table is fully present and patiently waiting for someone to bring us the paperwork to sign.


Another Big Boss announcement, “Table 12 gets to head home!” His celebratory words sound guttural with fatigue.


My table gratefully shared snacks among one another. Meanwhile, we waited and waited and waited. Having covered all light topics, we had big, thorough discussions about taboo subjects, including religion and politics.


I was told with a smile, ”You're not so bad for being a Republican.”


“Honestly, most of us aren’t if we’re just willing to talk with one another,” I replied.

We shared funny stories about our lives and left each other in stitches. Four simple human beings bonded over the accidents of life and the humor of God. We became grateful for the delay, I think, and the other folks at my table no longer eyed my whiteness and me with suspicion.


Another few promises of “Be right there,” went by.


We stood guard for our processed ballots and the drone of voices died down from the surrounding area as other tables were dismissed. Our Section Supervisor finally reached us and loudly asked, “OK, who’s my Republican at this table?”


I proudly proclaim, “That would be me!”


“I need you to sign this, this, and this.”


I signed, she signed, and we all exited stage “right” …until the next day of processing.

 

 

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