Currie-ing disfavor

Among the can of worms opened by Maureen Taylor’s lawsuit against City Clerk Jackie Currie and the Detroit Election Commission is a particularly interesting fact that’s wiggled its way to the surface: Until now, managers of senior citizen complexes were being “deputized” by city election officials to handle absentee voter ballots for their residents.

Critics cried foul, saying it created a situation where elderly voters could easily be coerced. Even one of Currie’s lawyers admitted in court last week that the practice created the “appearance of impropriety” and advised his client to cut it out.

For those of you who haven’t been following the case, here’s the scoop:

Taylor ran for Detroit City Council but didn’t make it past the August primary. When she demanded a recount of 46 absentee ballot boxes (at $10 a pop, she and her supporters couldn’t afford to have all 100 of them inspected) ballots in 29 of those boxes couldn’t be recounted because of problems with the way they were handled. In many cases, seals used to protect against vote tampering had been broken.

In addition to the attempted recount, Taylor filed a lawsuit that claims the election process was tainted. Particular attention is paid to those absentee ballots. As part of that lawsuit, Taylor attorney Steve Wasinger recently deposed Gloria Williams, director of the Detroit Department of Elections. It was during her deposition that Williams revealed “deputized” building managers had long been authorized to collect absentee ballots from folks and then pass them along to elections officials.

“It’s an inherently coercive situation,” Wasinger tells News Hits. “You can threaten to turn off someone’s heat if they don’t vote the way you tell them. There are all sorts of things. These guys have had senior citizens in their pocket. It’s an outrage.”

Along with the building managers, Election Department employees also go to senior facilities, delivering and collecting absentee ballots — and, in some cases, helping residents fill out those ballots. A Detroit News investigation published Oct. 20 revealed that some people voting by absentee ballot have been declared, by probate court, to be mentally incapacitated. News reporters interviewed — or at least tried to interview — some of these supposed voters, people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia who couldn’t even name the current mayor. But somehow, Currie’s paid election workers were able to help them cast ballots.

News Hits has a strong hunch that, along with supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential aspirations, these folks overwhelmingly tend to be sending their votes Currie’s way.

The issue was back in court Monday when the debate moved to an injunction that would install safeguards through the Nov. 8 general election. Called to the witness stand, Taylor calmly testified as to why she is pursuing the lawsuit: “I filed this case because I wanted the clerk to be stopped from stealing elections.”

Currie lawyer Steve Reifman — instead of using lawyers from the city’s Law Department, she’s incurred the expense of hiring outside counsel — says the case is a “witch hunt and a wild goose chase.” The court, he says, is not the place to be addressing these complaints. “If you think there’s fraud, go to the county prosecutor, go to the attorney general,” Reifman says.

Currie, who’s up for re-election next Tuesday, has been generating a lot of headlines recently. In September, she sent absentee ballot applications to potential voters — senior citizens and the disabled who would be likely to need them — even though instructed by the judge not to. Taylor’s lawyers contend such ballots should only be sent to people who ask for them, not en masse. That issue has yet to be settled.

What’s not in dispute is that Currie was found in criminal contempt for violating a court order and fined. She remained unapologetic. Trying to play the race card, she complained of being singled out, saying officials in some other jurisdictions do the same thing. News Hits tends to think Currie’s race card is trumped by the fact that Taylor, a leading welfare rights advocate, is African-American. The truth is that Detroit’s elections have long been fraught with problems, and Currie, as the city’s chief elections official, is the one responsible.

Along with her criminal contempt, Currie also made headlines recently when the Free Press reported that Joseph Hudson, a $60,000-a-year contract worker who oversees the city’s voter outreach program, was convicted in June of defrauding a downriver school district of $204,000. Currie, the Freep revealed, personally wrote the presiding federal judge urging removal of the electronic tether Hudson is required to wear.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]