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Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey faces 4 challengers in August primary

Detroit — Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey is set to face up to five challengers in the August primary as her record for troubled vote tallies continues to be an issue.

Winfrey narrowly defeated Garlin Gilchrist II in 2017, and the political unknown's unexpected performance helped gain the attention of now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who tapped him to be her lieutenant governor running mate.

After her initial victory in 2005, political consultant Mario Morrow Sr. hailed Winfrey and husband Tyrone, who won a seat on the city's school board, as "Detroit's new political golden couple."

On Tuesday, Morrow said "Janice Winfrey is going to have to work harder. She's going to have to indicate she's made improvements to the clerk's office, especially since the state has had to come in and help her."

But "the power of incumbency" and name recognition "might be enough to pull her through" and retain the nearly $90,000-a-year job, Morrow said.

Along with Winfrey, the field of would-be candidates includes Kinda Anderson, Denzel McCampbell, Michael Ri'chard, Jeffrey Robinson and Beverly Kindle-Walker. 

Winfrey and Ri'chard's petitions are certified. Anderson's was not, according to the Clerk's Office, meaning she did not meet filing requirements. The others will be reviewed over the next week to ensure they meet the 500-signature requirement.

More: In Detroit, problems plague election vote-counting for more than 15 years

An immediate issue will be the August 2020 primary, in which recorded ballot counts in 72% of Detroit's absentee voting precincts didn't match the number of ballots cast. When factoring in Election Day results almost half, or 46% of precincts, had voting totals that didn't match precinct poll book numbers — meaning they potentially couldn't be recounted in a close election.

More: Detroit's ballot problems seem unique among Michigan's largest cities

Wayne County's canvassers called for state intervention, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson formed a partnership with Winfrey that brought in a team of high-profile advisers to ensure the integrity of Detroit's November election.

Winfrey said sometimes people have a misconception that the state ran the November 2020 election in Detroit. It didn't, she argues.

"We always worked together. They always oversaw the process. That's their job," Winfrey said.

Benson never had supervisory authority because Winfrey did, Benson spokesman Jake Rollow said.

"We partnered with the city, but we also provided support to many other cities," Rollow said. "The Bureau of Elections, that's their job, supporting all of the 1,520 election jurisdictions across the state." 

But unlike other localities, Detroit's absentee vote counting was overseen by Chris Thomas, Michigan's former longtime election director, who served as Winfrey's special adviser in the November election. When Republican canvassers and lawmakers raised questions about the vote-counting process at Detroit's TCF Center, it was Thomas who ended up answering the vast majority of questions.

While the state did recruit and train election workers for Detroit, it recruited and trained about 30,000 election workers statewide, Rollow said. 

"Detroit has always been portrayed as mainstream America, mainstream media, as less-than," Winfrey said.

Last year Winfrey was targeted by Democrats and Republicans alike, and the attacks came close to home.

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump believed the election was stolen from him, and Winfrey helped do it. Winfrey said when she went walking at a park near her home, she was "rudely" confronted by a group of Trump backers.

It followed almost two months of weekly protests outside Winfrey's home. The demonstrations were organized by Brenda Hill, a candidate for state representative, who was leading in the August primary until a late surge of absentee votes propelled Mary Cavanagh in front of her.

Hill took the issue to court after losing by 1,131 votes. 

Winfrey said the weeks-long ordeal was an annoyance for her family and neighbors.

"We did not sign up as public servants to be harassed and terrorized," Winfrey said.

Foes target vote tally troubles

Miscues by Winfrey's office have helped attract challengers. In 2013, Detroit put up billboards announcing the wrong election date. 

From outdated voter rolls to special deliveries of absentee ballots to obsolete equipment to mismatched poll book numbers, Detroit has become a regular epicenter of voting irregularities that haven't resulted in widespread voter fraud but have raised questions about the counting of ballots.

Some of those questions are now on the lips of Winfrey's challengers. 

Anderson, 43, worries that, if Detroit did have massive election turnout, the Clerk's Office wouldn't be able to handle it under current leadership. About half or 50% of the city's registered voters participated in the November 2020 election.

"What if we had 75% turnout?" asked Anderson. "We would not be able to believe in our vote."

Anderson and fellow challenger Michael Ri'chard describe the path ahead as "easy," but for different reasons.

Anderson argued the job isn't complicated and that an organized person who can manage people will do well.

Ri'chard, a legislative aide to Wayne County Commissioner Monique Baker McCormick, contended it's "the easiest thing to run for."  

Ri'chard, who ran unsuccessfully for clerk in 2009, worked for six years under former Clerk Jackie Currie, whom Winfrey defeated after the FBI launched an investigation into election practices.

While he feels his time under Currie prepared him for the work, he said his talks with the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers gave him the game plan for the August election.

At 64, Richard said he will rely on a playbook used by Conyers to win election to Congress in 1964: speak to as many community groups as possible. 

"I may be the underdog, but I feel nobody is going to outwork me, and nobody is going to out-campaign me," Ri'chard said. "They may be able to outspend me, but that's about it."

Beverly Kindle-Walker, 66, was among the protesters outside Winfrey's house after the August primary.

"I did protest at her home to ensure something would be done after the primary to ensure things would be better in November," Kindle-Walker said. 

The problem in Detroit, Kindle-Walker said, is when the voting totals in polling boxes and polling books aren't the same. Under election law, those ballots can't be recounted in a close election.

In the 2017 election, votes from 20% of Detroit precincts could not be recounted.

"Fifteen years is a long time to correct an issue," Kindle-Walker said.

This is not Kindle-Walker's first campaign. She started running for office in 1996 against late Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz. She has never held office.

"I can see a better way," Kindle-Walker said. "I can do the job correctly. I'm not trying to be there forever. I just want to get it straightened out."

McCampbell, 29, is communications director for U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. He also serves on the Detroit Charter Revision Commission.

He believes the city is ready for "new ideas and new faces," and says boosting voter turnout would be a priority if elected.

"It's not that Detroiters aren't engaged," McCampbell said. "It's that we're not going directly to Detroiters to let them know what's going on and giving them the tools to effect change."

Robinson, 52, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Karen Dumas, longtime Detroit political expert, said Detroiters have been "disappointed with the returns on their vote" over the years. 

The disappointment and possible low voter turnout might create an opportunity for an upset, Dumas said.

"If somebody was really in touch and in tune with the street, if they got to them in the way (former Detroit Mayor) Kwame Kilpatrick did, to remind them that their vote matters, it could change the trajectory of this election," Dumas said. "People in the hood feel forgotten about. If there is someone who can connect and say 'I haven't forgotten about you,' they can beat her."

Morrow predicted the race will come down to name recognition, money and endorsements.