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Problem with Oakland executive race led to exclusion of Pence on overseas ballots

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

About a dozen military and overseas ballots were downloaded with incorrect information Monday and Tuesday in Oakland County, a state programming error whose correction actually prompted a larger error involving the presidential race on more than 400 ballots.

Some Oakland County clerks were contacted about the issue Wednesday, when they were informed that military and overseas ballots downloaded Monday and Tuesday were missing the full-term race for Oakland County executive. 

Republican Mike Kowall and Executive David Coulter, the Democratic incumbent appointed to the position upon the death of former Executive Brooks Patterson, are competing in two separate races for a partial term to fill out the remainder of Patterson's term and for a full four-year term to begin in January. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson talks about the Aug. 4 primary.

The error that excluded Kowall and Coulter's race from Oakland County overseas ballots originated in the state system. 

When they were alerted to the missing executive race Tuesday, Department of Technology Management and Budget staff working for the Bureau of Elections attempted to correct the problem and accidentally caused a secondary issue that resulted in a Libertarian candidate to be incorrectly listed as President Donald Trump's running mate on ballots downloaded between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Clerks who had downloaded a ballot during that window were alerted to the issue Tuesday afternoon. Election officials believe roughly 400 ballots were download during that time.

"With 1,500 jurisdictions across the state, that means that you have so many different ballots so it's not uncommon to have errors like this that are caught and corrected quickly," said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. "That happens basically every election cycle and does not impact the results of the election.”

The Bureau of Elections sent an email to Oakland County officials shortly after noon Wednesday alerting them to the issue with the executive race and encouraging them to review all ballots issued to voters Monday and Tuesday under the Military and Overseas Voters Empowerment Act, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Detroit News. 

"We think it impacted very few ballots that were actually sent — about a dozen or so — because it was caught Tuesday and addressed immediately," Rollow said. 

Clerks were directed to issue a replacement ballot if necessary and were provided a sample letter to explain the issue to voters.

"Spoil any ballots that were sent with the incorrect office information and issue a new ballot," the email said. 

Coulter's campaign said it had confidence that Benson would correct the problem promptly so that overseas voters could cast a ballot in a timely way. 

"We just want to make sure everyone who is eligible to vote in this important election is able to do so," said T.J. Bucholz, a spokesman for Coulter's campaign. 

Kowall was less forgiving of the problem, noting that he was sent a copy of the ballot about a month ago and it had the correct information. Local races especially, he said, can be "won and lost by very slim margins."

"That’s just plain sloppy work and it's no wonder that people don’t trust the whole procedure," he said. 

In Rochester Hills, city Clerk Tina Barton said she had received notice of the issue with the executive race before downloading any ballots from the state system. A banner across the site alerted clerks of the issue Tuesday. 

"It’s not common, but it can happen," Barton said of the recent issues. "That’s why it's our responsibility to proof these ballots before they’re sent out and that’s how it was caught.”

Troy Clerk Aileen Dickson said she was also alerted to the issue by a voter who checked his or her sample ballot on the Michigan Voter Information Center page and noticed the full-term executive race was missing.  

She said the city decided Tuesday morning not to use the downloadable ballots from the state system and instead used ballots generated by Oakland County.

"I made that decision because I didn’t know when the issues at the state level were going to be fixed, and we have almost 300 MOVE voters, so I couldn’t delay," Dickson said. 

In Oxford Township, election officials received notice from the state that there were problems with the executive race and avoided downloading any incorrect versions as the township prepared to meet the Saturday deadline for mailing military and overseas ballots, said Clerk Curtis Wright. 

When asked about the issue with the presidential race Wednesday, Benson said voters could have confidence in the state's election based on the success of the March, May and August elections. 

The "computer glitch" affecting the presidential race was fixed promptly and voters have since received the correct ballots, she said.

She warned that over the next several weeks "there's going to be an incredibly intense amount of scrutiny on our state, and people will be working to pick apart every single action that I, that our clerks take."

Any American overseas voter can mail their voted ballot to the U.S. at no charge from the nearest consulate, diplomatic post office, embassy or an Army or Fleet post office if the voter has access to the military base, according to the U.S. Postal Service.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com