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Local elections 2018: Where are the local elections taking place?




After botching past elections, Detroit aims to avoid a ‘black eye’ in November



DETROIT — The workers had signed in. They’d had their temperatures screened. They’d filled out paperwork, and they were waiting for their training to begin when Daniel Baxter strode to the center of the room, grabbed a microphone and launched into a speech that, at times, seemed more suited to the pulpit where he preaches on Sundays than the convention center basement where he trains election workers.

“Say, ‘There’s healing power!’” Baxter called to the trainees, his booming voice echoing through the cavernous exhibit hall where 75 workers sat, spaced apart, around large, rectangular tables.

“C’mon, say it again,” he said when the group’s response was less than enthusiastic. “Say, ‘There’s healing power in troubled waters.'”

“There’s healing power in troubled waters,” the group repeated.

Daniel Baxter addresses election workers during a training session in Detroit.Erin Einhorn / NBC News

Baxter, 55, a former elections director for Detroit who has been enlisted by the city to help with next month’s presidential election, didn’t spell out exactly what he meant by troubled waters.

He didn’t need to. Many of the people attending that Wednesday morning training last week, sitting in the very seats where they’ll be processing absentee ballots on Election Day, had signed up for this job precisely because they knew about the problems that have dogged Detroit elections in the past.

They knew what happened two months ago during Michigan’s primary, when a record number of absentee ballots overwhelmed city election workers, who were short-staffed and ill-prepared because of Covid-19. They knew that exhausted workers, processing ballots all day and into the following morning in this massive, concrete basement, had made so many errors that 72 percent of the city’s absentee-ballot counting boards were out of balance, meaning the number of votes recorded did not align with the number of ballots cast.

Residents wait in line for same-day voter registration or amendments to their voting status outside of the Department of Elections in Detroit during the Michigan primary on Aug. 4, 2020.Brittany Greeson / Getty Images file

And they knew what could happen if these problems repeat themselves during the general election next month, when the entire nation will be watching.

Donald Trump won Michigan four years ago by just 10,704 votes. If the election doesn’t go his way this time, he and his supporters — already on high alert from the president’s repeated unfounded assertions that Democrats will try to rig the election — are sure to scrutinize how the ballots were tallied in Detroit. The state’s largest city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Joe Biden is likely to get more votes in Detroit than in any other city in the state.

So when city and state election officials announced last month that they needed thousands of energetic election workers to help address the problems that undermined the August primary, they were flooded with applications.

“Thank you so much for putting your hands to the plow for this particular operation,” Baxter told the workers last week. “When the clarion call was made, you all answered, and as such, we are very confident that we will have the ability to be efficient, to be accurate, and to make sure that every vote counts for the citizens of the city of Detroit.”

Many of the workers at the training session said they know the urgency of the job and vowed to avoid the mistakes of the past.

“So Trump ain’t got no wiggle room,” said David Taylor, 55, of Detroit.

If the president loses, Taylor said, “he’ll say it was done wrong.”

‘It was just jaw-dropping’

Detroit’s long history of election problems was last in the national spotlight after Trump’s narrow victory here in 2016.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, quickly conceded to Trump, but a short-lived recount pushed by the Green Party’s nominee, Jill Stein, revealed that more than half of Detroit’s precincts were legally ineligible to be recounted.

Vonettia Midgett awaits assistance as the massive recounting of ballots begins for Wayne County’s portion of the presidential election in Detroit on Dec. 6, 2016.Max Ortiz / Detroit News via AP file

Michigan has an unusual law that bars recounts in precincts where votes are out of balance — a law that dates to the mid-20th century when lawmakers feared post-election tampering with lever-style voting machines, said Christopher Thomas, who retired in 2017 after 36 years at the helm of Michigan’s election bureau.

“It’s an outdated system that really needs to be changed,” said Thomas, who was also brought on as a consultant last month to help Detroit in this election. “It’s kind of hard to explain to people why you wouldn’t recount things that are off. One would think those are exactly the things that should be recounted.”

Efforts to change the law over the years have not succeeded, Thomas said. Though election officials have gotten better at balancing precincts, the issue persists across the state. A voter might leave a precinct before completing the ballot, he said, or an election worker might fail to document that a voter made a mistake on a ballot and asked for another.

Problems are especially pronounced in Detroit because of the city’s size and its volume of votes, Thomas said.

They were exacerbated in 2016 by an unwieldy, two-page ballot with multiple referendums and 63 school board candidates, said Baxter, who was in charge of city elections at the time.

An audit later “found no evidence of pervasive voter fraud” in 2016 but blamed “an abundance of human errors,” including the mishandling of provisional ballots, which are cast by people whose names are not initially found on a precinct’s voter list.

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Precinct voting should be easier this year, Baxter said, because Detroiters will have a single-page ballot and turnout on Election Day is expected to be much lower than in the past. Due to the threat of exposure to the coronavirus and to changes in state law that have made it easier to vote absentee, most Detroiters are expected to put their ballot into a drop box or the mail before Nov. 3.

That shift to early and absentee voting is what led to the unprecedented turnout in August, when the number of absentee ballots cast in the state’s primary shattered records. Despite the absence of major contested races, Detroit received 80,000 absentee ballots — nearly 50,000 more than during the gubernatorial primary in 2018 when four Republicans and three Democrats were vying for the state’s top job.

The sheer volume might have been hard for city workers to process even under the best of circumstances, Baxter said, but election workers were further hobbled by the pandemic, which slowed preparations and made it harder to recruit workers. Many of the people who’ve worked Election Day in recent years are elderly and at high risk of serious complications from the coronavirus.

Debra Moore sanitizes her workspace during primary Election Day on Aug. 4, 2020, in Detroit.Nicole Hester / via AP file

With only two nurses on hand to screen workers’ temperatures as they entered the counting room in the basement of Detroit’s TCF Center, many workers weren’t seated until 10 a.m., three hours after the law allowed counting to begin, Baxter said. And there were delays in printing poll books, the lists of voters that election workers needed to check as they processed ballots.

That led overwhelmed, under-trained workers to take shortcuts such as feeding ballots into the tabulator without first making sure they were valid, said Clifford Frost, one of a number of Republican party volunteers who observed the ballot tabulation process at the convention center during the August primary and documented a long list of errors.

“It was just jaw-dropping,” said Frost, 73, a real estate agent from Warren, Michigan, adding that if this happens again next month when the presidency is at stake, “it’ll be a major, phenomenal black eye, an embarrassment.”

Bob Cushman, another Republican observer, who signed an affidavit documenting improprieties during the absentee ballot counting in August, said fatigued workers who’d started their day at dawn started leaving as the evening wore on.

By midnight, election officials were warning workers they wouldn’t be fully paid unless they stayed to the end, said Cushman, 70, of South Lyon, Michigan, a retired corporate pilot for General Motors.

Then, at 2 a.m., he said, a top supervisor made an announcement instructing workers to skip ballot processing steps such as checking to make sure the number on each ballot matched the number in the poll book and to just start feeding ballots into tabulation machines.

“I was shocked,” Cushman said. “They wanted to do this to get out of there and be able to finish up before they lost everybody, but it still took three more hours to process all the ballots and do the paperwork.”

‘A learning experience’

Baxter said some of the allegations from Republicans observers were rooted in politics. Most imbalanced precincts were off by just a vote or two. But city and state election officials don’t deny that serious mistakes were made in August.

“In anybody’s view, that was a disaster,” said Norman Shinkle, a Republican member of the state board of canvassers, which verifies election results. The board considered not approving the August results but did so after calling for state oversight of Detroit’s election operations.

Michigan’s secretary of state, whose office oversees elections, responded in September, announcing a series of interventions, together with the Detroit city clerk, to better prepare the city to process an expected deluge of 200,000 absentee ballots in November.

They hired Thomas, whose tenure as head of the state elections bureau spanned four decades and five governors, and announced plans to recruit 6,000 election workers.

Churches and community groups put out the word. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced plans to essentially shut down city government on Election Day to make all city employees available to help. City sports teams volunteered staff and facilities for the effort.

The city will now have five workers at every absentee counting board table instead of three, Baxter said. They’ll make $600 a day instead of the $200 they made in the past. They’ll have more training, going through a hands-on course involving practice ballots instead of the lecture-style training of the past. They’ll have more supervisors to support them and they’ll have an electronic poll book system that will confirm voters using a barcode scanner instead of hunting for a voter’s name on a long, printed list.

Daniel Baxter, a special project coordinator for the Detroit Department of Elections, shows the screens where teams of one Democrat and one Republican will review ballots that are rejected by the tabulator because of extraneous marks or rips.Erin Einhorn / NBC News

The TCF Center will have more high-speed tabulators to count ballots and will have several shifts of workers so no one will have to start at dawn and keep going through the night.

It’s all going to make a big difference, Thomas said. “I’m feeling very good about it. Things are coming together.”

In the end, the lessons learned in the primary ended up being a “beautiful thing” for Detroit, Thomas said, because they identified problems that could be fixed before they affected the outcome of a presidential election.

“What a learning experience primary elections have been,” Thomas said. “In Wisconsin, Georgia, Maryland, all these places that did their first big mail volumes, it’s been a huge learning curve that these election officials have figured out and have adapted their systems to more efficiently handle them.”

That doesn’t mean there won’t be problems next month, Thomas said. But he’s hopeful they’ll be minimal.

Whatever happens, GOP volunteers like Cushman say they’ll be watching. He’s part of what Trump has called an “army” of supporters who will monitor polls in Democratic areas.

A former Democrat who changed parties to vote for Ronald Reagan and has supported Republicans ever since, Cushman says he’s happy to do his part.

“The most important thing we can do is make sure that we have a fair election,” he said.

The election won’t be perfect — no elections are, said Sharon Dolente, the voting rights strategist for the ACLU of Michigan. She runs an election hotline for voters that fielded complaints in August about ballots that weren’t mailed out on time and voters who weren’t notified that their polling place had moved.

But she’s seen some positive adjustments from city and state officials since then and is now “cautiously optimistic” that things will go smoothly in November.

“What I would hope that people understand,” she said, “is that lots of folks in Michigan are here working on solving these problems.”

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Commission on Presidential Debates co-chairman discusses new rules for final debate



Co-chairman of the Commission for Presidential Debates Frank Fahrenkopf discusses the decision to further enforce rules for the final presidential debate between President Trump and Joe Biden and claims they are “in the best interest of the American people.”

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Political candidates face uptick in anti-LGBTQ attack ads



State Rep. Brianna Titone, who made history in 2018 when she became the first transgender lawmaker in Colorado, is now running for her second term. But while her platform focuses on the bread-and-butter issues of transportation, education and jobs, her opponents have targeted her gender identity.

The group Take Back Colorado released a Facebook ad this month that misgenders Titone and refers to her by her “deadname,” the name she used before her transition. The ad also claims Titone has “always supported violence” and sexualizes children.

“It’s just a nasty, transphobic ad that’s blatantly full of lies,” Titone told NBC News.

Take Back Colorado is registered to Joe Neville, the brother of Patrick Neville, the Republican state House minority leader. When questioned by The Denver Post, Patrick Neville denied the ad was transphobic, saying it simply showed “the facts.”

Titone said the strategy backfired. She raised $11,000 in the 36 hours after the ad ran —about 20 percent of all online contributions to her campaign this cycle — and said she now had contributions from 43 out of 50 states.

“I’m getting support from places all over the country now,” she said. “People recognized that there was a group of people trying to beat up someone who is doing a really good job.”

Titone is not the only target of anti-LGBTQ political ads. Many LGBTQ candidates this cycle have been subjected to such attacks, prompting advocates to worry that it has become a trend.

“The homophobic and transphobic attacks on LGBTQ candidates are more frequent and more direct than we have seen in at least a decade,” said former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who now runs the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that trains and promotes LGBTQ political candidates.

“The dog whistles of the last few cycles are still prominent, but they are secondary to more direct and blatant uses of anti-LGBTQ stereotypes that weaponize our sexualities in an effort to derail campaigns,” Parker added. “LGBTQ candidates are being falsely called ‘pedophiles,’ ‘sexual predators’ and ‘drug users.’ They are being told they are ‘deplorable’ and should ‘go to church.’ They are being misgendered. And their dating histories — including their use of dating apps — have become the targets of opponents.”

Competitive races

Many of the attacks are happening in close races in competitive districts, like Titone’s.

“My race was one of the hardest races to win in 2018, and I’m a top targeted seat in the House right now,” Titone said of the Colorado House of Representatives.

Gabriele Magni, an assistant professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said homophobic and transphobic attack ads “can be especially powerful and especially hurtful in districts that are not very progressive to start with.”

“They can bring out fear in the electorate,” Magni said. “It’s from an old playbook … trying to create fear about what can happen if transgender people are in office, or if people who are allies with transgender people are in office.”

Magni added that anti-LGBTQ attack ads are actually “validation of the strength and competitiveness of LGBTQ candidates.”

At least 574 LGBTQ candidates will be on the ballot next month, according to the Victory Fund. Fifteen of those candidates are running for Congress, and several of those races are hotly contested.

Gina Ortiz Jones, the Democratic nominee for a House seat in West Texas in San Antonio, Texas, on Aug. 10, 2018.Eric Gay / AP file

Gina Ortiz Jones, who’s running in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, has been the subject of attacks funded by the National Republican Campaign Committee. The committee ran an ad last week implying that Jones, a U.S. Air Force veteran, would put military “patriots out of work” so she could “divert military money for transgender reassignment surgeries.”

In August, HuffPost reported that the committee had been encouraging outside groups to remind Texas voters in Jones’ swing district about her sexual orientation.

“The national fundraising arm of the Republican Party has declared war on LGBTQ candidates this election cycle — and homophobia and transphobia are their weapon of choice,” Parker said. “It is despicable that Republicans would attack a military veteran simply because she believes the trans soldiers who risked their lives beside her deserve fair treatment when they return home.”

Jon Hoadley is a Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives and is currently running for Congress. Fran Dwight

Jon Hoadley, an openly gay congressional candidate in Michigan, has been the subject of an attack ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC dedicated to electing Republicans to Congress, that has been criticized as homophobic. The ad makes reference to Hoadley’s sexual history and calls his judgment “disturbing.” Hoadley is running against an incumbent Republican, Fred Upton, who has not denounced the advertisement.

The ad drew from Hoadley’s personal blog that he kept in his early 20s. On the now-deleted blog, Hoadley wrote about going to a gay bar and mentioned “a four year old wearing a thong” in a post about a friend’s wedding. Hoadley has apologized in a Facebook video for any misunderstanding stemming from the posts.

Chris Pack, a spokesperson for the National Republican Campaign Committee, defended the ads.

Holding Hoadley accountable for “his disgusting comments about toddlers in thongs has nothing to do with his sexual orientation,” Pack told NBC News, “and the same is true regarding Gina Jones wanting to divert money from the military to foot the bill for transgender reassignment procedures.”

Progressive strongholds

Personal attacks on LGBTQ candidates can also occur in progressive strongholds.

Ritchie Torres, who is a shoo-in to win his seat in New York’s 15th Congressional District and become the first Afro-Latinx LGBTQ person in Congress, was called derogatory names on social media that many interpreted to be homophobic.

Torres was called a “first class whore” in a now deleted tweet by Ed Mullins, an officer with the New York Police Department and president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association.

The comments came after Torres criticized the NYPD amid an increase in gun violence. Mullins said his comments “had nothing to do” with Torres’ “race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

“My comments had everything to do with his dangerous policies and worldview,” Mullins stated. “The city is burning and Councilman Torres wants to blame the police.”

New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, left, in New York on March 19, 2018.Richard Drew / AP file

Magni said attacks like this are not surprising. He said that many of the attacks this cycle are “based on homophobic tropes” that cast gay men as promiscuous or sexual predators.

“American voters are OK with LGBTQ candidates if LGBTQ candidates are sexless,” Magni said.

Despite Torres’ near guaranteed win in November, personal attacks could still have a negative impact.

“The way homophobic attacks work in progressive strongholds … is by hurting candidates in an indirect way,” Magni said. “Some of these attacks isolate LGBTQ candidates and force some allies to distance themselves.”

Like-minded organizations might put endorsements on hold or volunteers and donors may pause contributions, causing LGBTQ candidates to “lose access to resources and allies that are needed at critical moments,” Magni added.

The idea, Magni said, is to “burn all the bridges around the candidate.”

“That is why I think it’s important to respond quickly to these attacks and unmask them for what they are — baseless claims,” Magni said.

Intersectional attacks

This year, more LGBTQ candidates of color are running than ever before. This means more candidates are vulnerable to comments that attack not only their sexual orientation or gender identity, but also their race.

For example, openly gay Illinois state House candidate Ken Mejia-Beal has been subjected to comments from his opponent, Republican Rep. Amy Grant, that target his race and sexuality.

On a recorded fundraising call over the summer, Grant said, “That’s all we need is another person in the Black Caucus.” She went on to say: “I just think that maybe he’s afraid of the reaction that people might give him. Not because he’s Black, but because of the way he talks. He’s all LGBTQ.”

Equality Illinois, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, condemned the remarks as “racist and homophobic.”

Grant subsequently apologized, saying she “deeply regret[s] the comments” and added that they “do not reflect my heart or my faith.”

Mejia-Beal, however, does not buy Grant’s apology and said she’s out of touch with the people in his district. “She is not a nice person,” he said, adding that Grant’s comments reflect racist and bigoted beliefs.

Grant’s campaign also circulated a mailer insinuating that Mejia-Beal was connected to a cover-up of a sexual assault over a decade ago.

“Right out of the gate, when she started attacking me, I didn’t understand where it was coming from,” Mejia-Beal said. “When I heard the audio, that’s when I had the a-ha moment.”

Mejia-Beal’s opponents may have perceived his candidacy as more vulnerable to attacks because of his multiple marginalized identities.

Magni recently conducted research exploring voters’ reactions to LGBTQ candidates and found that gay men — particularly Black gay men — were the most likely to be penalized by voters.

“In the U.S., Black candidates are penalized more than white candidates for being gay, in addition to the separate, individual penalties that they face for sexual orientation and race,” he said.

He added that this penalty “does not come from Black voters.” When compared to white voters, he added, “Black voters are now more supportive overall of LGBTQ candidates, since LGBTQ candidates tend to be Democrats.”

Personal safety

Personal attacks can also threaten LGBTQ candidates’ personal safety.

Jenna Wadsworth, an openly bisexual candidate for North Carolina’s commissioner of agriculture, received rape and death threats after posting a TikTok video criticizing President Donald Trump, according to the Advocate.

Todd Gloria, a member of the California State Assembly and candidate for mayor in San Diego, also received threats of physical violence that his campaign said were incited by his opponent, Barbara Bry.

Gloria came under criticism after he voted for SB 145, a bill that addresses anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the application of the sex offender registry.

“We have reported the threats to the San Diego Police Department, and they are currently investigating,” Gloria said in a statement. “While I refuse to let this paralyze our campaign, voters deserve to know that this is what Barbara Bry’s campaign is inspiring. Her campaign is bringing out the worst of who we are. We are so much better than this, and San Diegans should hold her and her campaign accountable this November.”

Non-LGBTQ targets

Targets of homophobic or transphobic ads may not even be LGBTQ. For example, the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank and PAC, released an ad targeting presidential candidate Joe Biden and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., alleging that they support “policies which would allow biological males to compete in women’s sports and push children into dangerous, life-altering sex-change” procedures.

Magni said such ads are designed to “galvanize the most conservative base,” so these voters turn out on Election Day. The idea is to depict Biden and Peters “as out-of-touch liberals who threaten ‘traditions,’” Magni said.

‘Chilling effects’

While a record number of LGBTQ candidates are running for office this year, some advocates fear anti-LGBTQ attacks could derail this progress.

“The last few election cycles we have seen the number of LGBTQ candidates increase dramatically, but this trend is not inevitable,” Parker said. “Already we are hearing from LGBTQ elected officials that they may not seek higher office because they don’t want to expose their loved ones and families to these deeply personal attacks.”

Magni said these attacks could have a long-lasting impact.

“The damage that is done is not only to candidates right now but the potential chilling effects among younger LGBTQ people who are thinking about running,” he said. “It’s not only about scrutiny. Their personal lives are going to be distorted. Their dating lives are going to be weaponized … It makes them think twice.”

For her part, Titone is determined to keep campaigning and support the presence of other transgender women in office.

“When you are only 1 of 4 transgender legislators in the whole county, representation matters,” Titone said. “We cannot take a step back in trans representation at this point.”

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