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GOP vote count challengers chose Detroit. Ask why.


Election worker Sommer Woods speaks to challengers gathered at an entrance to TCF during vote counting in Detroit.

Detroit Free Press

Sommer Woods stood in front of the doors to the absentee ballot counting room at Detroit’s TCF Center on a mix of anger and adrenaline.

Captured on the Free Press’ Wednesday live stream, Woods, a Detroit consultant and election worker, stands at the glass doors as a mass of GOP challengers descended, demanding entry to the room where, many were convinced, bad things were happening. Woods patiently explains to the crowd that there are set limits for the number of challengers from each party, and nonpartisan observers, who can enter the room, and that capacity had been reached. The crowd doesn’t accept Woods’ answer; in fact, she is interrupted so many times that she has to repeatedly demand quiet so that she can explain the rules. 

Election worker Sommer Woods speaks to challengers gathered at an entrance to TCF during vote counting in Detroit.  (Photo: Detroit Free Press)

It felt like a playbook she’s seen before. But this time, she was at the center.

Woods thought of Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to attend an all-white school after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of integration, walking to school that first day as a mob of angry white adults surrounded her, yelling at her, throwing things at her. 

“All she wanted to do is go to school. All these people wanted to do is count the votes,” she said. “And what did they do? The same tactics they’ve been using for years, to try to be an agitator to try to (mess) up democracy.”

I can make the case for you with history and quotes and stories that how Detroit’s decisive role in this election is being cast by President Donald Trump, and that what happened at Detroit’s TCF Center this week, are about white people fearful and skeptical of Black power and authority, and about the corresponding urge to suppress Black votes. 

But we white people need to start by believing Black people when they tell us about their lives. There is no more powerful expression of what this moment felt like than the accounts of Woods and other volunteers, Black and white, who say the disrespect inside and outside of that room was palpable, and that it wouldn’t have happened — didn’t happen — in white Democratic enclaves. 

“White people in these spaces of suppression and oppression have used violent tactics for a long time, to yell at you, call you demeaning names, to be disrespectful,” Woods said. “They were calling the ballot count people stupid. That’s not correct. They were coming in there not to challenge in the appropriate way, but to be agitators to try to get something to pop off, period. So here it is that Black people, yet again, because we don’t want to pop off, because … we know it’s going to be a situation, so we can’t entertain it. So instead we have to sit there and take that shit.”

For Detroiter Khalilah Burt Gaston, it was an emotional experience.

“I think for me personally, one of the most difficult or emotional aspects of this was seeing older Black women who were trying to do their jobs being physically intimidated by white men and women,” she said. “So you consider the optics of being in a room with Black people who were working and having white people stand over them too close, hollering and accusing them of not doing their jobs, it definitely for me had the optics of what what we see and what our ancestors experienced as they were enslaved.”

There seemed to be a presumption, Gaston said, that Black people are guilty, and that white people are entitled to question, disrupt and police them. 

“We had GOP representatives challenging ballots before they even got to a table, challenging ballots blanket,” which is not allowed, she explained. “You have to be very specific as to why you are challenging a ballot. The other moment was when you have a majority white crowd outside yelling ‘stop counting the votes’ of a majority Black city with majority black election workers. Our votes are just as legitimate, and we as a city should have the same freedom to count and process our votes as the suburbs do, free from harassment and intimidation.”

Why Detroit?

Oakland County tilts Democratic: Joe Biden won 56% of the vote there, 14 points ahead of Donald Trump. Washtenaw County is as Democratic as Wayne County — in both counties, Biden won more than 70% of the vote, beating Trump by 50 points. But the GOP challengers didn’t go there. Trump isn’t trashing Ann Arbor in a televised address, as he maligned Detroit on Thursday night as “one of the most politically corrupt places in the country,” insinuating that poll workers had counted votes in secret (they did not) and that ballots had been mysteriously produced under cover of night (they were not).

For years, the GOP’s national strategy has been to suppress votes in Black and brown communities: Gutting the Voting Rights Act, demanding purges of voter rolls in Black and brown communities that, the president’s suggestion that supporters become an “army” at the polls. 

And, as Trump did Thursday night, in conveying the absolutely incorrect and racist assumption held in too many white venues that there is something inherently shady about Black cities, Black votes, Black leadership and Black people.

“Black power looks one way for African-Americans, particularly African-Americans in city of Detroit,” says Jamon Jordan, a local historian and founder of Black Scroll Network History and Tours. “Black power looks like Black people in positions of authority, Black people on the school board, on the city council, Black mayors, Black police officers, Black contractors, African-Americans owning businesses. That’s how African-Americans define Black power, also in resistance to oppression, police brutality, unjust laws aimed at black cities.”

But outside the African-American community, he says, it’s different. 

“Particularly in those individuals and places that are hostile to African-Americans and their movements for greater racial equality, they see Black power as Black incompetence. African-Americans see (Detroit’s first Black mayor) Coleman Young as a heroic figure. For many people outside of Detroit, particularly if they’re not African-American, they see Coleman Young as an abysmal failure, that he is the major cause, if not the cause, of the decline of city of Detroit, and if it is not all on him, the residue is blamed on the ’67 uprising and Kwame Kilpatrick.”

For those people, Jordan says, “Detroit is the failure of Blacks.”

In contrast, white civic or business leaders, like Mayor Mike Duggan or businessman Dan Gilbert, are presented as saviors.

“The framing is, whites are the solution for the problem, but Black people are the problem,” Jordan said. “So when you see the targeting of Detroit as ‘the problem’ in this election, it’s really just shorthand for ‘Black people are the problem.'”

That sentiment has roots in white supremacy, Gaston said. 

White people should ask themselves, “Why do I believe black people are inherently bad, why do I feel entitled to question and berate black people? The idea that Black people are inherently guilty is the same sentiment that leads to black people being shot by the police. It’s the same sentiment, they just don’t have guns,” she said. 

Normal process. Abnormal disruption.

Around midnight on Election Day, the call went out: GOP challengers were arriving en masse at Detroit’s TCF Center, and Democrats needed to field an equivalent team. 

All day Wednesday, GOP challengers descended on TCF, even when the counting room was at capacity, at times going so far as to pound on the glass of the counting room, chanting to be let in. 

Challengers are a fixture of absentee ballot counting; each party has the right to question ballots for accuracy, clarity or legitimacy. Often, the problems identified can be cured through a process outlined in election policy: Challengers might agree, for example, that a voter who chose too many judicial candidates might forfeit that section of the ballot, but that her other selections would be counted.

And Woods says that’s fine. 

“I don’t have a problem with you asking a question. What I have a problem with is four people trying to intimidate me. The strategy was to try to double up, team up, and do stuff they’re not supposed to do. The privilege is race. Why am I having to stare off with a grown white woman, 45, 50 years old, because she thinks I can’t tell her she can come in?” she said. “You had people working 12, 15 hours. I had one sister who came in with her suitcase, and I said, ‘Dang, sis, you moving out?’ She said, ‘No I work at the plant, I know what it’s like to work a long day, I know we’re going to be here all day counting these votes.'”

As the woman left, after a long shift, with her suitcase, Woods said, the GOP challengers followed her. 

“They are chasing after this older Black women saying ‘Video her, video her, ask what’s in her suitcase, she’s sneaking ballots out.’ We had to get DPD to go with her … She’s just trying to go home from working her shift, and she’s greeted with these people. They know they can wield this narrative to feed into the fear and the perception of what sometimes people think about Black people,” she said. 

The effort to stop or suppress the vote count in this majority Black city was unsuccessful. The count went on, unimpeded, even as GOP challengers beat on the glass windows of the counting room, and as volunteers inside the room mounted challenge after challenge, observers report, legitimate or not. The lawsuit filed by President Donald Trump to stop the count here was thrown out. 

But this can’t fly. 

Seriously, we’ve got to change this

Gaston notes that it is up to the Legislature to handle some of this: Lawmakers didn’t mandate social distancing at polls and counting places, or bar guns from polling places. That has to change, before the next election. 

But there’s other work to be done. 

“A lot of people have talked about how this is great, about how Black people flipped Michigan, we appreciate y’all,” Woods said. “This ain’t on the backs of Detroiters … This ain’t on Detroit to hold this down, we got to have a conversation about some real, visceral racist people in this state, and how this plays out in the positions that they’re in, and work that they’re doing. I think for all of us as Detroiters, we all got to continue to step up … For white people, I appreciate that you’re appreciative, but what are you doing to move the conversation forward?”

Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the Free Press editorial board. She has covered local, state and national politics for two decades. Contact: Become a subscriber. 

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