The day after Election Day, the convention center in Detroit was a scene of chaos. The fate of Michigan, a pivotal swing state, would hinge in part on turnout in the heavily Democratic city, and observers from both parties poured in to monitor the count. Inside a giant room at the TCF Center, election officials and volunteers gathered to tally tens of thousands of ballots that would help decide the outcome. By the next day, the Detroit Free Press would report “yelling, taunting, cheering, fists pounding on glass and unruly challengers being hauled off by cops.” Candice Fortman, who runs a Detroit newsroom called Outlier Media, was among the volunteers.

Members of Fortman’s family have served as Election Day volunteers since she was a child. Her job was to sign in poll workers, as well people called vote challengers – Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan volunteers who are allowed to observe the process and report issues with any particular ballot. She was interviewed by Reveal host Al Letson; this is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

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Candice Fortman: I arrived at 4 a.m. on election morning. And my first job was to check in the poll workers who were counting the absentee ballots that morning. Then around 6 a.m., my job transitioned to inside of the room where the ballots were being counted, where I was the person assigned to help the challengers check in. So GOP challengers, Democratic challengers and nonpartisan challengers would come to my table first, sign in with me, time-stamp themselves in, and then I would give them direction. 

So you’ve got about 500 folks just counting ballots. Then you’ve probably got 20 or 30 people working the computers and accounting machines, probably another 10 to 15 people from the election staff, plus probably 200 to 300 challengers in the room at any given time. 

Al Letson: What does it feel like when you start seeing these people trickle in?

CF: So you would get a rush of Democratic challengers, but what was absolutely noticeable was how GOP challengers were showing up in large numbers at one time. You could not ignore it. The first thing that was noticeable is the GOP challengers were by and large White. And I think that matters when you look at who the election workers were in Detroit. Detroit is a city that is 80% Black. That meant that most of the people who were there working as absentee ballot counters were Black.

So the counterposition of the two groups was incredibly noticeable.

AL: When did things start to heat up?

CF: Tuesday, things were relatively normal. I mean, certainly there were people who had to be removed from the room for what was deemed as harassment of poll workers for pulling phones out, because there were no phones allowed in the room at all on Tuesday. Anything like that was a violation of the room and you would be removed. Using inappropriate language, yelling, chanting, causing a ruckus, disrupting the flow of work. 

When I arrived on Wednesday, it was like walking into a completely different space. The energy in the room had completely shifted. There were probably close to a hundred people standing in the lobby, trying to get into the space to be challengers, but also causing what can only be described as a complete scene.

I meet up with one of the other volunteers, and I see that they are counting the book of challengers. They had been asked to count the number of challengers that had signed in, because there were too many people in the room. So when we did the count at that point, there were 200 or so GOP challengers in the room, 200 or so Democratic challengers and about 75 nonpartisan challengers. Every group was allowed to have 134 people in the room at any given time. So we were well over the number of folks for both Democrats and Republicans. That’s what I walked into.

We did not remove anyone from the room, but we stopped letting people in.

AL: Outside the room, you see this massive group of people. What was the feeling? 

CF: I didn’t know what their mood was. I certainly didn’t feel like I walked into a place that was warm and inviting. It did not feel like the day before, where it’s Election Day and you kind of have that energy of “We’re all here to support democracy.” That feeling had left the room. 

Sommer Woods, our team lead, goes to the door to talk to the police officers, where she is telling them we are at capacity. We cannot let any more challengers in the room. That is when the energy changed. So when you see videos that have circulated over the week of people banging on the doors, banging on the glass windows that are in the entranceway to that room, that is what we started to see at that point. 

And people chanting a chant that’s never going to leave my mind: “Stop the count. Stop the count.”

AL: When I saw those videos, I was just taken aback that people would be chanting “Stop the count” in a democracy. And just the juxtaposition of the people I saw chanting were primarily White and the people on the other side, doing the work, were primarily Black. And you’re in Detroit, which – it’s a pretty Black city. 

CF: I don’t know that I’ve ever had a moment in Detroit where I felt unwelcome in my own city. It was both infuriating and also one of the scariest things that I have ever personally witnessed during an election event. I’ve been volunteering with my parents and my family at election events since I was a little girl. I have been a part of this process many times over, and I have never, in all of my days, seen anything that sounded like that or looked like that.

This is when tension starts to rise. So now the Democratic challengers in the room feel like they needed to be even more aggressive in supporting and protecting the poll workers. My conversations with them were all about making sure that we could keep the poll workers counting. Because at this point, they’ve been there since 5 o’clock in the morning counting votes, and we know at the very least they’re going to be there until 8, 9 o’clock at night. What ends up happening is that they’re there until 5 o’clock in the morning.

Challengers of both groups have a purpose, but their purpose is not to be disruptive of the process.

At this point, poll workers were leaving. So one particular challenger had been removed from the room for using his camera to record election equipment. He’s standing at those windows that they had been knocking on earlier, and he’s calling to someone in the lobby. Our senior poll workers were leaving out of the doors right there, where that glass window was, because that’s the only place there’s access to an elevator. So our seniors, our folks in wheelchairs, our folks with walkers or canes were coming that way. Many of them had large bags, because, again, they’ve been there all day. They brought lunches. They brought coolers. I mean, one woman had a piece of luggage and she had a blanket in there because the room had gotten cold to her.

And so as this woman is rolling this piece of luggage out, this young man is calling out into the lobby, and he says, “Go follow her, go follow her! She’s stealing ballots! They’re stealing ballots!”

This was an older Black woman now being chased by a group of White men inside of this facility.

AL: Did you feel like race was playing a big factor in what was going on?

CF: There’s no way to really see it any other way. And I have the added experience of having lived in Detroit my entire life, 39 years. And so I understand the dynamics of race and how they play out here. We often ignore Northern cities and race relations, to our peril. What we have in Detroit is redlining. We have folks that do not come into the city unless they are here for a football game or baseball game, so they don’t have any real relationship with the city or with the people who call this city home. We are just the folks on the other side of Eight Mile. That is a very real mark that separates the city from the suburbs. That still exists – if not in real life as a wall, it exists in our minds as a structure that keeps some folks on one side and some folks on the other side.

AL: Were the poll workers in fear?

CF: There was a mix of fear, there was anger, and to some degree, there was also this sort of Detroit spirit that lives in all of us of “Back up off me.” Let me do my job. Let me do my work. I am here just like you, trying to protect democracy. 

You have to ask yourself a question that most Detroiters are asking today. Why didn’t they go to Ann Arbor? Ann Arbor is an incredibly liberal college town with tons of White liberal professors who were likely voting for Joe Biden. Why not Ann Arbor?

Why not Royal Oak, one of our wealthiest suburbs? Why not Oakland County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the state of Michigan, that went for Joe Biden? Why not there? Why Detroit? And I think that if you ask yourself, why not Ann Arbor, why not Oakland County, then you get down to what is the bare-bones answer. And that is because that’s not where Black folks are.

And those aren’t the folks that we’re actually trying to suppress. Those aren’t the voices we’re trying to quiet.

AL: So what were the kind of things the White challengers were saying to the poll workers?

CF: I’m hearing this from the poll workers, right? They’re coming back and relaying these stories to me. You had everything from questioning the intelligence of the person working – “Are you able to understand the rules?” In one instance, there was a GOP challenger who said to a Black woman sitting at a table, “You know, what you’re doing is against the law,” to which she responded back, “Well, I’m a lawyer, so we can have that conversation.” There was no assumption that the people sitting at this table have just as much intellect as you do.

We would have moments where a group of challengers would get together and even inside of the facility would start chanting that chant that again is running in my head, “Stop the count.” So you would have these moments of direct intentional antagonizing of one poll worker or this groupthink of antagonizing the entire room of poll workers.

AL: The president was saying some incendiary things about the polls, poll workers, the vote. Do you feel like he was putting you in danger?

CF: I absolutely know that’s what he was doing. It was both scary and also incredibly, incredibly infuriating.

AL: I’m curious what you’re taking into the future.

CF: I was reminded that I stand on giant shoulders in this city. The reason that we were able to navigate that without losing our cool is because we had been trained by a generation who had seen so much more than what we were seeing that day. 

I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather is from Arkansas. He came to Detroit the same way almost every grandparent that came to Detroit came, and that’s to come and work for GM or Ford or Chrysler. But those stories of what he endured to get here – from going to World War II and fighting for a country that did not see him as a full human being, to eventually working on the racist floors of General Motors – those stories were sitting in me that moment. 

I remembered that I was Timothy’s granddaughter. I was sitting there because I don’t want my nieces and nephews and my goddaughter to face that the way I faced it. I want them to have a better road, a better chance. That is what generations of Detroiters provided for me.

There was no way in the world that I was going to allow anything to happen in that room that did not protect that vote. The thing that is somehow lost on so many of these folks is that I’m an American. I was born in this country. I’m the daughter of this country. No one has fought for this place and for its democracy more than Black people, and certainly not more than Black women. And so to have this idea floating around in the room that I would be doing something that challenged that system that I believe in, even though it doesn’t believe in me, was asinine. It was crazy.

And so there we sat taking it, dealing with it, because we knew that what we were doing wasn’t just about us. It wasn’t just about this election. It was about generations that will come after us who will have a better and an easier time navigating as Black folks and folks of color in this country.  

This interview was produced by Najib Animy and edited by Esther Kaplan.

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