One need only to recall last November’s general election — in which Donald Trump carried Michigan by just 10,000 votes out of 4.8 million cast — to appreciate how voting irregularities in Michigan’s largest city could cast doubt on the legitimacy of a closely contested state or federal election.
So the integrity of Detroit’s electoral process, and of the city clerk who oversees it, has ramifications for voters far beyond the city’s borders.
Janice Winfrey, 59, who was a math teacher when she stunned Detroiters by ousting longtime incumbent Jackie Currie in 2005, is seeking her fourth term as city clerk.
Happily, the office Winfrey presides over today bears little resemblance to the corruption-plagued operation she inherited from her predecessor.
Under Currie, the clerk’s office had become an object of national ridicule, noted for voter rolls inflated with the names of Detroiters who had long ago died or moved away but sometimes managed to cast ballots.
Currie came under suspicion for dispatching clerk’s office employees to “assist” nursing home residents with absentee ballots, and in her final election faced allegations that some ballots were distributed to absentee voters with the names of favored candidates, including Currie’s, already marked.
Even so, election administration in Detroit continues to lag that of other cities. Winfrey’s office, although far more ethically scrupulous than her predecessor’s, continues to experience embarrassing lapses of competence, as when its faulty understanding of election qualifying procedures nearly aborted Mike Duggan’s 2013 mayoral bid.
Last November’s presidential balloting was marred by equipment failures and procedural foul-ups that stymied voters in many Detroit precincts, and a state audit revealed widespread counting discrepancies that effectively precluded a recount in Michigan’s closely contested presidential election. Imagine the chaos that could have ensued if the winning candidate’s electoral vote majority had hinged on Detroit’s problematic vote count.
Winfrey’s repeated bids for higher office — she ran for Secretary of State in 2010, and challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. John Conyers in 2016 — also have distracted her from the continuing challenges of the clerk’s office.
In sharp contrast to the mayoral primary contest, in which no candidate with executive experience or policy expertise to rival the incumbent’s has emerged, the city clerk’s race has attracted two highly qualified challengers.
Heaster Wheeler, who served four years as a deputy to former Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano, is best known to Detroiters as the former executive director of the country’s largest NAACP chapter.
A seasoned veteran of state and local Democratic politics, Wheeler, 60 is well-versed in the challenges of training and deploying large groups of volunteers. His oversight of the NAACP chapter’s gargantuan annual fund-raising dinners would serve him well in preparing for elections in which many moving parts must mesh smoothly.
Wheeler’s affability and intimate familiarity with Detroit’s political landscape are additional strengths that combine with his logistical prowess to make him a formidable contender to succeed Winfrey.
But the most promising candidate in the city clerk’s race is 34-year-old GARLIN GILCHRIST II, a former computer engineer and veteran political organizer who returned to his native Detroit three years ago as the Duggan administration’s director of new and emerging technology.
Gilchrist’s short but impressive career has furnished him with a broad range of technical and logistical experiences that mesh neatly with the challenges the next city clerk confronts.
As a national campaign director for MoveOn.org, a progressive public policy group, he coordinated successful campaigns against initiatives to suppress minority voting in Florida, Texas and the Carolinas.
In Detroit, he oversaw a program to upgrade the monitoring and maintenance of fire hydrants throughout the city and led the development of online platforms that make it easier for residents to request and monitor city services ranging from traffic signal repair to fallen tree removal.
Gilchrist also spearheaded the Detroit Government Open Data Access To All (GO DATA) program, which provides Detroiters with the means to track the city’s efforts to improve law enforcement and demolition of abandoned houses.
Gilchrist says the city clerk’s role is to open the doorway to democracy for all Detroit residents. To realize that ambitious vision, he proposes detailed plans to revamp the recruitment and training of poll workers, reduce obstacles to voter participation, and make better use of social media to publicize meetings and hearings he complains are currently promoted only via bulletin boards at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.
Many candidates for city clerk, including incumbent Winfrey, talk about lobbying for changes in state law that would make it easier and more convenient for Detroiters to vote; Gilchrist is focused on proven initiatives (such as re-assigning voters to more convenient polling places and dispatching cell phone alerts and updates) that can be implemented at the local level, with or without the cooperation of hostile or indifferent state legislators.
His pragmatic focus and prodigious energy make Gilchrist the best choice to advance in the Aug. 8 primary election for Detroit City Clerk — and a promising addition to the city’s understocked pool of political talent.