Driving the vote: Election Day at a soup kitchen

By Cassie Balfour, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 6, 2012

DETROIT — A table by the front door is decked out in red, white and blue. Ballot literature covers its surface. Most in the room wear a sticker on their jacket that reads, “I voted.” But this is not a polling place. It's the Detroit Action Commonwealth Capuchin Meldrum soup kitchen.

What do you think are our responsibilities toward enfranchising the low-income community members of Detroit?


Clipboard in hand, LSA senior Amy Navvab — a volunteer at Students for Detroit Action Commonwealth — called out names of people who had waited, some for hours, for a seat to open up in a University student’s car. Michael Myles, a Detroit native had arrived at the building at 8:30 a.m. but had to wait until a little after 1 p.m. to secure his ride to his polling location. For Myles, this was his first time ever casting a ballot.

“I made it my business to say I was going to vote,” Myles said.

Detroit Action Commonwealth isn’t interested in short-term solutions or charity – they’re action-oriented, aimed at empowering the low-income population of Detroit to advocate for themselves. Founded by Political Science Prof. Gregory Markus just five years ago, D.A.C. is unique in that it was built up by the same low-income Detroit community members who frequent its three soup kitchens dotting the blighted east side of Detroit.

Here on Election Day, they are here to make sure that low-income community members of Detroit have the transportation and information they need in order to make an informed decision, often physically driving these members to the polls.

Markus pointed out that even during one of the worst recessions in recent memory, low-income populations aren’t brought up in the debates. They’re generally not even part of the discussion.

According to Markus, this population wants to vote but lacks access to transportation and voting information. Often, they are nervous about voting after being locked out of the political sphere for so long.

D.A.C was thus developed as a space to “build collective power” so that the government will recognize the community members of Detroit as constituents worth talking to.

D.A.C. board member Mary Johnson, who first encountered the organization when she picked up a food basket from one of the kitchens, said she “truly thought it was a responsibility for all of us that your voice is heard,” Johnson said.

“People think my vote doesn’t count, or if you’ve been incarcerated or you don’t have a place to live, (you shouldn't vote),” she said. “That has nothing to do with voting. As long as you’re a registered voter, you can vote.”

Barriers for low-income voters

According to state records, thousands of Detroit residents don’t exist. They don’t have any state identification. Without identification, a person can’t get a job, rent an apartment or open a bank account.

In recent years, various states have adopted stringent voter laws that require a state-issued ID in order to vote. But in Michigan, the requirement isn't as strict. One might be asked for an ID, but voters can opt to sign an affidavit affirming their identity in lieu of handing over identification.

The problem isn’t, as various D.A.C. members and students organizers stressed, well-known among the low-income and indigent populations in Detroit who stay in homeless shelters. Many of the barriers for voting are mental in addition to logistical due to the spread of misinformation about enfranchisement rights.

“People have a lot of fear … they feel as though the system continues to let them down, they no longer have the confidence that normal people have,” said Arinett Ross, a D.A.C. board member who spent the morning rush manning the voter information table at Meldrum. “Because their confidence level is put down to zero, they feel like, 'Why should I vote?’ ”

The student connection

This is where the University fits in. A number of University students not only drove community members to the polls, but also helped register them prior to Election Day and escorted them inside if they felt nervous about voting.

As a result of D.A.C.’s efforts, members have won various victories, such as getting represented on the Homeless Action Network of Detroit that distributes resources to homeless shelters in Detroit for the first time.

“The goal of the organization is pretty much to develop leaders,” said Public Policy senior Brock Grosso, who helped drive community members to the polls. “And that kind of has its own snowball effect helping people gain control over their own lives and helping people have equal and adequate influence on policies that are affecting their lives such as the channels of funding in shelters.”

Markus teaches two political science classes focused on Detroit and community organizing that acts as a pipeline for University students to get involved with D.A.C.

Navvab noted that students could leverage their privilege and experience to act as effective organizers at D.A.C. This is demonstrated by the fact that students donated their time and cars to help shuttle community members throughout Detroit to their respective polling stations, some as far flung as Dearborn. And when Myles wasn’t sure which station he was supposed to vote at, Navvab was able to utilize her smartphone to quickly look it up.

What both Grosso and Navvab stressed was that organizing involves immersing oneself in the community.

“It’s easier for us to work together if I know basics about who you are as a person,” Navvab said. "It’s important for me to know silly things."

Navvab pointed to Greg, a Detroit community member that she had helped drive to the polls, and the fact she knew he owned 400 Hot Wheels. “Even though our lives are different, we can still see each other as people and connect,” Navvab said.

Markus echoed this statement when he said that it didn’t make sense for the state to make it difficult for low-income citizens to participate in the political environment because it undermines democratic values.

“That’s how democracy is supposed to work,” Markus said.

On the drive from his poll station, Myles, who was anxious about taking a day off work, nevertheless noted how important it was for everyone to vote. The first-time voter credited meeting people at the Meldrum shelter for helping “turn his life around.” He seemed pleased that he had made his voice heard.

“I feel better when I vote,” Myles said.