Flint voters experience troubled waters of democracy leading up to Nov. 3 election

By Tom Travis

What is the prospect for accurate and reliable voting for the people of Flint as the Nov. 3 election approaches?  Several recent developments focusing on the Flint City Clerk’s office are attempting to assure access and trustworthy handling of absentee ballots and election procedures for the high-stakes election.

City Hall Shuts Down due to the pandemic

The year 2020 has presented its share of obstacles to hurdle in carrying out one of the most basic tenets of democracy – the vote.

“Let People Vote” image from ACLU website.

Around the world, 2020 has been marked by a global pandemic which has halted economies and daily life as we know it. Fears of spreading the virus and unknowns of catching the virus by standing in voting lines to cast a ballot millions of Americans have taken to absentee voting.

According to the Detroit News, 2.5 million Michiganders voted in the recent primary election and 1.6 million of them voted by absentee ballot. The passage of Proposal 3, the “no reason-absentee voting” in 2018 now allows for any voter in Michigan to vote by absentee ballot, for any reason.

The perfect storm began to form after the pandemic hit the U.S. in March.  Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer shut down the State of Michigan to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Municipalities around the state began to shut down their city hall buildings and municipal centers in response to the statewide shutdown.

Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley closed Flint City Hall in April 2020. This in turn closed the City Clerk’s office located on the 2nd floor. Absentee ballot application deadlines came and went and the City Clerk’s office remained closed.

ACLU files complaint against the City Clerk

With City Hall still closed, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was prompted to fire off a complaint to the City Clerk’s office in early July 2020. In the complaint, the ACLU calls for the City Clerk’s office to open to the public.

The complaint from the ACLU points out that, according to Michigan law, voters have the right to apply for, receive, and submit their absentee ballot “in person or by mail.” During that time, municipal clerks must “be available in at least one location to issue and receive absent voter ballots during the election officials’ regularly scheduled business hours.” For the primary election on August 4, 2020, the 40-day period began on June 25, 2020.

7th Circuit Court Judge Celeste Bell. (Photo from Genesee County Court website.)

Seventh  Circuit Court Judge Celeste Bell heard arguments from ACLU attorneys and from City Attorney Angela Wheeler.

Bell stated in her order that the Court acknowledges there is “detrimental effect from the COVID-19 pandemic and the statewide shutdown” has had on the conduct of all governmental business.

Bell acknowledged these issues caused delay to the City Clerk’s meeting a statutory deadline of providing ballots during the 40 days prior to the election.

“Nonetheless,”  Bell then stated, “A substantial delay has occurred in providing absent voter applications and ballots that cannot be explained or excused by the unfortunate circumstances affecting the voters and the City Clerk.”

With this strong ruling from Judge Bell, the City Clerk’s office extended their schedule and opened the office on the weekends for voters. Judge Bell also ordered added accountability requiring the City Clerk to provide a daily report until the primary election to the Court and the attorneys. The daily report was to provide the numbers of applications and ballots processed each day.

County Elections Supervisor writes letter to City Clerk

Following the Aug. 4 Primary Election, Genesee County Elections Supervisor, Doreen Fulcher sent a letter from County Clerk John Gleason’s office to Inez Brown. In the letter, Fulcher listed at least 19 “deficiencies” and “failures” by the City Clerk’s office in the Primary Election. [Fulcher’s letter can be viewed on EVMs website}

Brown never responded to that letter. However, she did speak at the next City Council meeting. City Council President Monica Galloway (7th Ward),  by special order on the agenda, asked Brown to come before the council.

Council members asked Brown what help she needed for the Nov. 3 election.  Brown responded by speaking to City Council for little over 30 minutes, explaining that in the next 45 days leading up to the Nov. 3 election what her staff would do.

Brown stated that election workers will have training and retraining sessions, additional election workers will be hired; Public Service Announcements (PSA) will be produced and shared throughout the community on cable TV and YouTube; the Absentee Voter Counting Board (AVCB)  will have additional training; and deputy clerks are available if a phone request is made to the Clerk’s office to have a ballot picked up at someone’s house. Also, Brown said she has invited Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to visit Flint on a weekend yet to be decided.

City Clerk Inez Brown pens letter to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

On Aug. 21, Brown penned a letter to Secretary of State (SOS) Benson informing her that the City Clerk’s office received “immediately” after the primary election a box marked Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). When the City Clerk’s staff opened the box it contained over 100 absentee voter applications.

In the same letter,  Brown also stated that, on Aug. 17, the Bureau of Elections (BOE) emailed the city clerk’s office two absentee application requests sent to the BOE  that were dated June 16, 2020 and July 29, 2020. Brown wrote, “They were received by my office 13 days after the August primary election. The only explanation received from the BOE was that, ‘Unfortunately, the State mail room gets sorted and backlogged pretty easily. So there has been some delay in receiving these. However, please do what you can with them now.'”

Brown did not make an explicit request in the letter to the SOS concerning hiring additional staff for the Flint Clerk’s office. However, Brown did suggest the SOS hire additional staff to relieve the “backlog” of mail in their mail room. [Brown’s letter can be viewed on EVMs website]

Pastors, Members of City Council and Community Leaders stand in “solidarity” with Clerk Brown

Responding to the County Elections Supervisor’s letter to Clerk Brown the Flint Unity Coalition of Pastors called a press conference to stand in “solidarity” with Brown.

Pastor Chris Martin spoke for the group which included City Council President Monica Galloway (7th Ward) and Councilperson Eric Mays (1st Ward). Martin stated, “There have been no misgivings or malfeasance in the City Clerk’s office,” Martin declared at the press conference. “John Gleason needs to cease and desist his bullying tactics against Ms. Inez Brown.”

Asked what level of accountability the County Clerk’s office has over the Flint City Clerk’s office, Gleason replied, “none.” The Genesee County website suggests there is some jurisdiction. But ultimately the City Clerk answers to the Flint City Council.

According to the City of Flint website The City Clerk is appointed by the Flint City Council and is responsible for the administration of the Office of the City Clerk.

Additionally, in a 2015 NBC 25 interview, County Clerk John Gleason said, “the natural sequence for resolution is for a local municipality deals with the state of Michigan they don’t deal with the county clerk. and they should keep that process as pure as they can.”

Voter deadlines and information for November election

On election day voters can cast their votes at a polling station in their precinct or in person at the City Clerk’s office on the 2nd floor of City Hall 1101 S. Saginaw Street, Flint MI.

Photo by Paul Rozycki

If you do not know what precinct you live in you can find it on www.vote.org. If voters have questions they may call the City Clerk’s office at 810-766-7414 or email the clerk at ibrown@cityofflint.com

If you’re voting by absentee ballot or voting online, your ballot must be postmarked 15 days before Election Day (October 19).

The deadline to register to vote is 15 days before Election Day (October 19) or you can register to vote on Election Day but you must register at the City Clerk’s office at City Hall on that day.

Complete voter information can be found at the Michigan Secretary of State website www.michigan.gov/sos

EVM assistant editor Tom Travis can be reached at tomntravis@gmail.com.

Author: Tom Travis

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