As voters in Detroit and across the nation gear up for the Nov. 3 election, confusion and misinformation about the voting process and COVID-19 continue to mount in Michigan and across the nation.
To help cut through the noise, Model D talked to three local experts to answer common questions about the voting process, identifying mis- and disinformation online, and ways local organizations are working to keep high-risk voters from marginalized communities safe during the pandemic.
Understanding the process
According to recent polls from NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist and Citizen Data, 35% of American voters plan to vote by mail with 60% planning to vote in person; in Michigan, 48% plan to vote by mail with 47% planning to vote in person. As confusion about different types of ballots and concerns about mail delays continue to worry voters, understanding the voting process is crucial to making sure everyone’s voice is heard.
According to Tracy Wimmer, director of media relations for the Michigan Department of State, the most important thing a voter can do to ensure their vote counts in this year’s election — especially when voting absentee — is to pay attention to the instructions on their ballot.
Model D: What do voters need to know about absentee ballots to make sure their vote counts?
TW: The biggest thing is when you receive your [absentee] ballot in the mail, or whether you pick it up at your clerk's office, is to follow the instructions to the letter. There’s very specific instructions in there about the type of ink you’re supposed to use, how to fill in the bubbles, things like that. And the other biggest thing is to make sure you sign the back of the envelope, because that signature is what we use to verify your identity and confirm you’re the voter, that you’re an eligible voter, and make sure your ballot actually counts.
Model D: How can voters make sure their absentee ballot arrives in time?
TW: People should be really aware of the timelines of returning ballots this year. We’re recommending that people put their ballot back in the mail, if that’s how they want to return it, no later than Oct. 19 — about two weeks before the election. And after that, they should return it either to a dropbox in their jurisdiction […] or they can take it back in person to their clerk’s office.
(Voters can locate their clerk’s office or find a full list of dropboxes in their area by visiting michigan.gov/vote and inputting their information under the “Who Is My Clerk?” section.)
Model D: Can voters return absentee ballots to their polling place on Election Day?
TW: No. They need to either return [absentee ballots] by mail, by dropbox, or in person at the clerk.
Model D: Since voters cannot vote in person at the polls on Election Day if they’ve been issued an absentee ballot, what should they do if they threw away that ballot or requested one but didn’t receive it in time?
TW: You need to go to your clerk’s office and request for the ballot to be spoiled. You can either request that by mail, or you can do it in person. I would recommend, given the situation, that you do it in person. They’ll spoil the original ballot, and then you have the option of either getting a new absentee ballot or voting in person at the polls on Election Day.
Model D: What should voters do if they haven’t received their absentee ballot yet?
TW: They should check again at michigan.gov/vote. If they input their voter information, it should be able to track their valid application so they can see the status of it. […] If it’s a situation where they’ve been mailed a ballot but the ballot has not arrived yet, they will still have the option to vote in person at their polling location on Election Day. They will just have to sign an affidavit saying that they did not receive their absentee ballot, and that will be marked in the qualified voter file.
(Wimmer adds that if a voter has already voted by mail and votes again in person using an affidavit, the absentee ballot would be rejected upon arrival. It’s also important to note that double-voting can carry serious penalties and legal consequences.).
Model D: If a voter does end up having to cast a provisional ballot, what additional steps do they need to take after voting to make sure their ballot is counted?
TW: Generally speaking, a voter has up to six days after the election to provide documentation [to their clerk’s office] for their ballot to count.
Model D: If a voter shows up at their polling place and it’s closed for any reason, what should they do?
TW: They should report that information by calling 517-335-3237. Generally speaking, we often see tags on social media. If there is a situation where their polling location moved unexpectedly, there would be documentation there from the clerk that would explain where the new polling location is. In situations where someone shows up in the morning, first thing, and it's not open yet — for example, we had a couple of places on the primaries day in August where not enough [poll] workers arrived, or no workers arrived. In that case, through our Democracy MVP election worker recruitment program, we had a stable of election workers ready that we sent to locations that needed them. [Those locations] opened late, but we were still able to eventually get them open. That’s the plan we have for Election Day as well. We’ve recruited more than 26,000 election workers across the state.
Model D: What's the difference between early voting and absentee voting?
TW: In Michigan, our “early voting” is voting absentee in person at your local clerk. That means you go into the clerk’s office, request an absentee ballot, vote it right then, then return it to the clerk. The ballot is then retained like all other absentee ballots and counted on Election Day.
Model D: What else should Detroit voters know about the upcoming election?
TW: We’re seeing the proliferation of more misinformation about elections than ever before. Michigan voters should feel absolutely confident that our elections are safe and secure. We’re ready for November. [Voters] should know their rights. They have a right to vote absentee. They have a right to vote by mail, by dropbox, at the clerk’s office, or they have a right to vote at a polling location on Election Day if they want to — and all of those options will be safe.
(In addition to contacting your local clerk’s office directly with any election-related questions, Michigan voters can email [email protected] to report possible misinformation and confirm whether or not voting-related information they’ve found online is accurate.)
COVID-19 concerns for LGBTQ+ voters
Jerron TottenIn an effort to address issues related to marginalized and sometimes vulnerable voters in the city, LGBT Detroit, a nonprofit advocacy organization serving Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community, recently co-hosted a virtual event called PRIDE Decides 2020: OUT and Voting, with speakers that included Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Bilal Hammoud of the Michigan Department of State discussing the voting process this year. It’s also a part of the statewide coalition MichiganVoting.org that kicked off the “40 Days of Early Voting” campaign last month in an effort to promote early voting among disenfranchised communities across the state.
Beyond voter education, though, social outreach coordinator and legislative advocacy specialist Jerron Totten says the pandemic has created a new set of concerns for Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community.
Model D: What are some of the top concerns for LGBTQ+ voters in the Nov. 3 presidential election?
JT: Primary concerns for LGBT+ folk have not changed much. As HIV infection rates continue to climb and COVID-19 poses a greater threat to those with compromised immune systems, health care — rather, protecting the little progress we have made — is still a major concern for LGBT+ folk.
Model D: What are some of the unique challenges and barriers to voting that LGBTQ+ voters face in Detroit, and what kind of outreach is LGBT Detroit doing to help overcome those obstacles this year?
JT: I recognize that quarantine has not been easy on many people. As a person belonging to two intersecting communities (LGBT and African American), it has been extremely tough getting through the pandemic as our nation continues to fail to value everyone as an equal citizen. LGBT Detroit is an education and advocacy nonprofit. Historically, the most harmful aspect of a marginalized group of people is a lack of education around the issues that affect them the most. Even in our new normal, LGBT Detroit has continued its mission to be a source of education to the community. The Brother to Brother program initially was a regional HIV intervention and prevention program. Brother to Brother continues its educational efforts on virtual platforms to keep the community informed of current issues and a general sense of community in quarantine.
Stopping the spread of disinformation
From innocently-misleading social media posts to active disinformation campaigns connected to foreign bad actors, unreliable information has become a major threat to this year’s presidential election.
Serena Daniels, Michigan First Draft fellow
To help prevent the proliferation of misinformation in Detroit, Serena Daniels, the 2020 local news fellow for First Draft, an organization that works to protect communities from harmful misinformation, offered Model D some pointers based on her experiences tracking online mis- and disinformation trends in Michigan this year.
Model D: What are some common misleading memes people should be cautious of on social media, and how can people prevent the spread of disinformation online?
SD: I do not necessarily follow specific memes online. I pay more attention to the types of keywords that are trending in social media groups and threads in Michigan-specific groups. People can prevent the spread the disinformation online by not sharing or reposting information that cannot be verified in their respective social media threads.
Model D: What are some of the key things people should look out for when reading articles online to spot misinformation or identify biased reporting?
SD: One of the most important things to look out for is to start by determining the provenance of the piece of information you're viewing. If you've never heard of that source, try following up by verifying if more reliable sources have reported on the topic you're reading about. If you can't find the same information being published elsewhere, you have to also consider the type of language that is being used in the information being shared. If the keywords that are used in a post, social media thread, or meme incite outrage, fear, disgust, or some other profound reaction, take a moment of pause and ask yourself why you're having that reaction. Often, bad actors will use readily available data in your user profile to share with you content that algorithms determine you are likely to relate to. Your online data is not private. Do not assume that the content you are viewing is being shared with every user online. It's easy to determine the type of data that people respond to and bad actors take great steps to use that data to share content that you're more likely to react to.