Michigan elections director retiring after 36 years

Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein

Lansing – Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas said Tuesday he will retire in June, capping a run that has spanned 36 years, five administrations and four bosses hailing from both major political parties.

Thomas was first appointed in 1981 by then-Secretary of State Richard Austin, a Democrat. He subsequently worked under three Republicans, including current Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

“Enormous changes in the world of election administration have taken place over the past 40 years,” Thomas wrote in his resignation letter. “The bureau has never been better prepared or more cohesive as they are right now. I am comfortable leaving Michigan elections in these hands.

Asked later Tuesday about his pending retirement, Thomas pointed out he is 67 years old and getting married on March 11. “I could either keep working or be blissfully married, living in St. Joseph, Michigan,” he said. “So I picked the latter.”

Johnson said in a statement she was “incredibly grateful” for the experience and expertise Thomas brought to the job.

“Michigan voters and election workers have benefited tremendously from his leadership,” she said. “I know of no one else here in Michigan or nationwide who has done more to support voters and improve election administration.”

Thomas’ departure comes on the heels of one of Michigan’s more tumultuous election cycles, which concluded with a partial hand recount of 2016 general election ballots requested by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein but eventually halted by state and federal courts.

The bureau also led a state audit of Detroit precincts with significant discrepancies between vote totals recorded in poll books and machine tabulators, concluding the mismatches were caused by “an abundance of human errors” by local precinct workers, not fraud.

The Bureau of Elections works closely with 1,600 local elections clerks across Michigan, providing staff training and assistance. The bureau also administers statewide elections and the state’s Qualified Voter file, along with campaign finance and lobbying disclosure laws.

Johnson did not immediately name a replacement for Thomas, but the secretary of state’s office said department leaders will develop a plan to fill the position.

During his tenure, “the secretary of state and the Bureau of Elections have been called upon by the Michigan Legislature and the Congress to take a larger role in ensuring uniform election administration, rolling out technology based services and keeping the franchise easily accessible and secure to all Michigan electors,” Thomas wrote in his resignation letter.

Thomas has been a “level-headed” leader and his work under secretaries of state from both political parties “says a lot about his ability to just focus on the job and what’s best for voters,” said Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, a Democrat and former board president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks.

“He led a clear path toward running smooth elections, and I think he’ll definitely be missed,” Swope said. “His will be big shoes to fill for anybody.”

The Bureau of Elections has faced many changes and could use more, Thomas said.

“We need secure absentee balloting for no reason,” he said, adding that the Bureau of Elections should not be a partisan office, although the secretary of state is partisan. “This business never ends. You never reach the point where you go, ‘Oh, we’ve arrived and everybody can just put their feet up and run elections each year.’ ”

Staff Writer Michael Gerstein contributed