Voting during a pandemic: Michiganians face their fears for civic duty

Stan Edwards thought hard about not running a polling place this year. A lot of other people did more than think.

They didn’t show up, assuring that what promised to be the most peculiar election in memory was every bit as odd as expected — and a bit stranger still for some Detroiters who didn’t find out until Monday that their poll locations had moved.

Realistically, oddness was almost running unopposed. Amid a pandemic that prompted a relative trickle of people earning “I Voted” stickers but a record 1.53 million returned absentee ballots as of Tuesday morning, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has predicted that results might not be available until Thursday.

What came as a surprise were the last-minute truancies that delayed the openings of at least four precincts in Detroit and one in Flint, left others short-staffed, and had Edwards, 69, and Detroit Precinct 282 colleague Johnnie Wilford wondering how they’d be able to eat lunch.

Precincts 282 and 287 share the auditorium at Calvary Presbyterian Church in northwest Detroit. Ordinarily, each has four or five poll workers. They opened an hour late at 8 a.m. with two apiece — which Edwards, a supervisor with more than 15 years of election experience, more or less understood.

COVID-19 “almost kept me from doing this,” he said. “A lot of people ain’t too happy I’m here.”

As for Wilford, 71, she promised that if she didn’t eventually get a bellyful, someone was going to catch an earful. “If we don’t get some help here,” she said, “they are going to hear this mouth.”

ELECTION RESULTS: Follow along as they come in

Benson’s office had recruited and deployed some 6,500 people statewide to help with an anticipated shortage of election workers, many of whom were of a perilous age for contracting the coronavirus. In a contentious world, there were other factors as well: some workers in Rochester Hills demurred because voters weren’t required to wear masks, and others bailed out because they refused to wear masks themselves.

Last week, the state had sent over a list of 1,200 workers that could be used by the city of Detroit and the city had enlisted more than 100 of them. 

When Northwest Unity Baptist Church, Cooke School and Dixon Academy found themselves paralyzed by absences, Benson’s office dispatched 50 workers, said spokesman Jake Rollow, and all three opened no later than 9 a.m.

Another 30 went into action outstate, Benson said at a Tuesday evening press conference. For November’s election, having 200 to 300 workers on standby “is going to be critical.”

She said there were delays Tuesday between calls for assistance and notification to her team, so “we need to set up a system to make sure we hear right away.”

As for the voters who literally didn’t get the memos about address changes, Rollow said the switches were made about a month ago after some building owners backed out because of fears related to COVID-19. The state asked Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey’s office to post explanatory signs at the former locations.

Elsewhere across Metro Detroit, workers operating behind plastic partitions greeted masked voters whose pens were massaged with disinfectant wipes after every use. Some voters questioned their own sanity for being there; others declared their resolve.

“People are scared,” said Precinct 6 chair Wendy Simpson, 75, at Warren’s Busch Branch Library. “I don’t blame ’em. I’m scared.”

“I almost didn’t come,” conceded Raymond Haines, 70. “My kids told me I’m nuts, and I’m not sure I disagree.”

At the same precinct, however, pastor James Bostic said he was “not going to be a hermit.”

Though Bostic, 79, has multiple sclerosis and uses a cane, “I want to be a light and a leader and show my respect to the process. If you’re going to be a voter, be a man who’ll stand up.”

The 1.5 million voters who opted to mail their ballots more than tripled the 484,000 absentee ballots in the August 2016 primary, and blew past the record 1.27 million in the November 2016 presidential election.

Absentee ballots take longer to process because of the time it takes to verify the signature on an envelope, open the envelope and feed the ballot through the tabulator. State law prohibits clerks from processing them before 7 a.m. on Election Day, the same time the polls open.

Many clerks were busier than poll workers when the bell rang. At Beer Middle School in Warren, where a banner on the front of the building offers a phone number for COVID-19 support services, some 700 people voted in March. After the lunchtime non-rush of 15 or 20 voters Tuesday, the tally stood at 113, not counting Rufus Hatcher, who was wearing a white Black Lives Matter T-shirt and a blue mask.

Hatcher, 68, applied for an absentee ballot but said he hadn’t received it. Workers sent him to city hall to sort things out.

“I do have to be mindful,” he said; his father and mother in Detroit are 94 and 87. But he was firm: “I’m going to vote.”

There was similar resolve outstate. In Portland, half an hour west of Lansing, one voter said the city building looked like a hospital with plastic curtains serving as dividers.

Despite the unintended reminder of the pandemic, Dorothy Adams, 62, was determined to vote in person, just the way the Founding Fathers did — if not the mothers, who had to wait until 1920.

“It’s our right to be able to go out and vote,” Adams said. “I don’t want to do it by mail. This is what I’ve been given the right to do.”

Edward Thomson, 51, stood outside his polling place, the Campbell Township office in front of a cornfield in Ionia County, and explained that voting was his civic duty.

“If I want to be able to complain, I have to vote,” he said. “I like to complain.”

Myra Smith, 61, said she would prefer to be unruffled — and the only way to assure that, at least politically, is to vote every time.

“You can’t miss one,” she said, and Tuesday, she didn’t even miss a minute. She was the first person through the door at Precinct 2 in Farmington, the sanctuary of the Freedom Gateway Center church.

The poll worker who greeted her said she was so nervous about the assignment she couldn’t sleep.

Melanie Frakes, 63, of Dearborn, bent across the width of two tables to give Smith her application-to-vote slip. Frakes insisted on the second table to provide proper social distancing.

“You have to be conscious of the new normal,” she said.

She is also conscious of her past. Frakes is a naturalized citizen who emigrated from the Philippines in 1973. She raised three children here, and her youngest, a civil engineer from Michigan State, is in officer training with the U.S. Navy.

“Mom, this is the only time I’ll be able to serve my country,” he told her.

That, she said, is what inspired her to rise at dawn, drive to Farmington, put on her star-spangled mask, and help other people exercise the right most of them were born to and she had to earn.

She arrived at 6 a.m. and was scheduled to be on duty for 14 hours.

“It’s what I signed up for,” she said, and now it was her turn to serve.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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