‘An awakening I haven’t seen before’: Detroit voters say 2020 won’t be like 2016

Sam Levine in Detroit, Michigan
·7-min read

Cole Thompson isn’t voting this year – he can’t because he’s only 17. But on a frigid and rainy afternoon last week, he and about half a dozen of his classmates at University of Detroit Jesuit high school fanned out in the blocks around their school to leave flyers on door handles encouraging people to vote.

“Last election, we didn’t put forth our effort and we didn’t vote and it kind of backfired on us because we wound up being a Trump state rather than a Hillary state and we should have been a Hillary state,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t matter whether or not I can vote. It’s still important to get people who can vote to vote.”

Michigan, with 16 electoral college votes, is one of a handful of states that will determine the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Detroit, the state’s largest city, will play a big role in determining that outcome. There’s little doubt that Joe Biden will win the vote in the Democratic-friendly city, but his margin of victory could shape whether he will carry the state. In 2016, turnout fell in Detroit; Hillary Clinton got about 47,000 fewer votes in the city than Barack Obama did in 2012. Donald Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes.

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Memories of that decline have helped fuel an aggressive blitz to turn out voters in the city in the final weeks of the campaign, even as Covid-19 has made in-person canvassing harder. That effort includes not just encouraging Detroit residents to vote but also explaining how; Michigan has dramatically expanded its voting laws since 2016, including allowing for no-excuse absentee and early voting.

“I know people I’m speaking to now in 2020 that haven’t voted in eight years in a presidential campaign. They are like, ‘Thank you for telling me where to go, thank you for coming to talk to me,’” the congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents portions of Detroit and the suburbs, told the Guardian. “There’s an awakening that I haven’t seen before.”

Rashida Tlaib knocks on doors in Detroit on 18 October to encourage residents to vote.
Rashida Tlaib knocks on doors in Detroit on 18 October to encourage residents to vote. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Activists in the city have been aggressively using no-contact canvassing – essentially leaving door tags and flyers on people’s doors. Organizers with the Detroit chapter of the NAACP have been canvassing neighborhoods across the city six days a week and say they are close to meeting their goal of 20,000 ground contacts.

Since the beginning of October, the core group of canvassers who have put leaflets on doors across the city have been men from Operation Get Down, a transitional housing program for people experiencing homelessness as well as substance abuse and mental health issues. Many of them registered to vote for the first time this year, said Steele Hughes, a canvassing organizer with the Detroit NAACP chapter.

“I’m doing it because I never really had a chance to vote … it’s a sense of renewal,” Eddie Dillard, 62, one of the canvassers, said as he bounded up and down porches in the cold on Friday morning. “You have a lot of people who really believe, ‘Well, I can’t vote because it doesn’t really matter’ … What we do today is for them to bring themselves into a place where they understand why it is they’re voting and the people they’re voting for.”

Inga Balke, who attended a Jill Biden event in Westland, just outside Detroit, has volunteered to canvas nine times around Detroit since the beginning of October. She said she was not taking anything for granted heading into the election’s final days.

“I can’t trust the polls and the amount of voter suppression that’s taking place is obscene. And because of that I’m worried that people are gonna get frustrated and maybe not vote,” she said. She’s been taking a map of Detroit’s satellite voting locations – in place for the first time this year – and teaching people about them.

Covid aside, activists see other substantial challenges in increasing voter turnout in the city. A federal appeals court recently upheld a state law banning paid transportation to the polls, forcing local groups to significantly scale back plans to give people rides to vote. Organizers had planned to rent a handful of vehicles accessible for people with disabilities, but the court decision blocked them from doing so, said Andy Didorosi, the founder of the Detroit Bus Company, which planned to help run the program. “It hit us like ice water,” he said.

There are also worries about outside agitators coming into the city to intimidate people at the polls after a state court lifted a ban on carrying firearms at the polls. “We’re fully expecting that,” said Kamilia Landrum, the executive director of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, which said this week it planned to monitor voter intimidation in the city. “We are prepared.”

Meanwhile, others are worried about votes being counted. On-time mail service in Detroit has been among some of the worst in the country. Just 74.8% of ballots were delivered on time in the city’s postal district over the last five days, according to data analyzed by the Washington Post. Election officials and advocacy groups have encouraged people through TV ads and other messaging to return their ballots in person instead of through the mail.

In interviews across the city, voters at the polls said they did not expect 2020 to be a repeat of 2016. They blamed a combination of sexism and a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton’s loss, but this year, there was a greater sense of urgency in getting Trump out of office. They pointed to Trump’s handling of Covid-19, the environment and the spread of racial unrest.

Detroit is more than 78% Black, and during his term in office, it has been impossible not to see the harsh impact Trump has had on the Black community, said Naje Safford, 23, as he dropped off his ballot on Wednesday.

Related: 'To me, it's voter suppression': the Republican fight to limit ballot boxes

“People were saying he was racist before he ran. Now we’ve seen example after example of him being racist. Now it’s like if you don’t see it now, you’re pretty much choosing not to see it,” Safford said. “All these Black people are dying and you’re telling us it’s not that bad. You’re encouraging people not to wear masks, not to protect themselves – that is affecting our community.”

Memories of Trump’s 2016’s surprise razor-thin victory also linger strongly for some Biden supporters.

“I honestly can’t trust the polls,” said Ammara Ansari, who attended the Jill Biden rally in Westland. “I was an organizer back in 2016 and a lot of people assumed that Hillary Clinton was gonna win and that didn’t happen.”

Across the street from the Biden rally, Dawn Udell was among a small group of Trump supporters who waved flags at cars passing and screamed that Biden was a socialist.

“Biden is for socialism. We want freedom. If we take our freedom away, we’ll never get it back. The Democrats will pack the courts, we’ll never see democracy again,” Udell said in an interview, claiming the media was biased against Trump. “This is about good and evil. This isn’t even about Republican and Democrat. It’s about good and evil.”

But for Penny Mims, who waited in line to vote with her husband at the Northwest Activities Center, a satellite early voting location in Detroit, the election is about actual lives.

“The funny thing about it is every election they say this is the most important election of our lifetime. But I really think it’s true this time … A lot of lives are on the line for people, our people, particularly Black and brown people.”