Detroit: canary in democracy’s coal mine? 

click to enlarge President Donald Trump demanded election officials stop counting votes at the TCF Center in Detroit on Nov. 4. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com
  • President Donald Trump demanded election officials stop counting votes at the TCF Center in Detroit on Nov. 4.

When Republican canvassers in Michigan attempted to derail the certification of the 2020 presidential election, a once mundane realm of the election process became the front line of a desperate ploy by Republicans to overturn an election described by the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as “the most secure in American history.”

These actions – including attempts by President Donald Trump himself to interfere with the work of the boards – have drawn scrutiny and outrage from around the United States and beyond. Yet many Detroiters, whose democratic voices are being placed on the chopping block by Republicans, are neither shocked, nor surprised by the past week’s events.



We, the editors of A People’s Atlas of Detroit, a collaborative book which documents and maps grassroots organizing efforts in Detroit, share in this sentiment. What happened in Wayne County is just the most recent example of a long-running anti-democratic strategy that has operated less blatantly and more insidiously in Michigan for years. In the Atlas we identify a political sea change that occurred over the last decade in Michigan, foreshadowing Trump’s rise to power while dispelling the myth that right-wing anti-democratic tendencies belong to Trump alone. While politics has never been anything close to a clean game, Michigan Republicans, in response to demographic change and political gains made by Black people, people of color, LGBTQ communities, and white progressives, pioneered a terrifying new strategy that centers on targeting democratic institutions themselves for destruction, and not just the opposing party. It’s as if they have reacted to no longer being able to win a family argument by burning down the house – with all of us inside.

As an example, in 2012, Republican Governor Rick Snyder and his allies in the state legislature enacted a new Michigan Emergency Management Policy (Public Act 436), giving them emergency powers to replace democratically elected leadership in cities under fiscal crisis, the largest of which were majority-Black cities, with their appointees. This institutionalized disenfranchisement led directly to the Flint Water crisis and the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in Detroit, as we discuss in the Atlas.

What’s more, in 2012 Michigan voters – and especially Black urban voters – had already voted against these proposed Emergency Management powers (then known as Public Act 4), in a historic and hard-fought ballot referendum. However, Republican Governor Rick Snyder and his allies in the State Legislature responded to this electoral show of force by simply repackaging the rejected Public Act 4 as Public Act 436 and passing it in the legislature, as if the entire ballot referendum over the EM legislation, which occupied political headlines for the better part of a year in Michigan, had never happened. Sound familiar?

Despite these efforts, the 2020 general election showed that the vote in Michigan’s majority-Black cities would not be held back. Just as importantly, it showed that the over 250,000 Detroiters who cast ballots were not brought out by the Democratic party machine, but by a massive grassroots effort. Moreover, all of this door-to-door, spade-in-the-ground work succeeded in the face of efforts by right-wing political operatives to suppress voter turn-out with tactics including robocalls targeting Detroiters. Despite these roadblocks, the personal health risk of voting during a pandemic, and more restrictive statewide voting laws, we witnessed increased rates of voter participation and turn-out in cities across Michigan.

Some Republican commentators have reacted to this herculean effort in Michigan cities with allegations of fraud that can’t come close to being justified by facts. Indeed, all that many Republicans have to offer are racist insinuations about the illegitimacy of voting in majority-Black Detroit. It seems Monica Palmer, the Chair of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, and her colleagues in the Republican party consider the mere existence of the Black vote – and the grassroots energy underlying it – to be a polluting force in the American body politic.

The turnout in Detroit and other majority Black cities on Nov. 3 is already becoming the subject of mythmaking. Republicans, who have made avoidance and denial the cornerstone of their political strategy on all things they can’t control, will simply continue to pretend it didn’t really happen. The Democratic party will try to claim Detroit’s grassroots energy as their own great victory, but such claims are as fantastic as the pronouncements of Hillary Clinton’s “inevitable” victory were in 2016. Now, as we head into Detroit’s own crucial election year, mayor Mike Duggan and other city leaders – nearly all of whom are Democrats – should be nervous, not smug, about this recent display of the people’s power to hold leadership accountable.

Linda Campbell is a Detroit resident and director of Building Movement
Project, Detroit and Detroit People’s Platform.

Andrew Newman is an associate professor of anthropology at Wayne
State University.

Sara Safransky is a human geographer and assistant professor at
Vanderbilt University.

Tim Stallmann is a cartographer based in Durham, North Carolina,
and a worker-owner at Research Action Design.


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