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Ballot mixups in Michigan spark war of words between Trump, Benson

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

President Donald Trump's scrutiny of Michigan's election process escalated Thursday as he zeroed in on recent mistakes in the state's overseas ballots, which are supposed to be mailed out by Saturday. 

Trump called Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson a "Democrat Trump hater" for a mistake on some Michigan overseas ballots in which a Libertarian candidate was listed as his running mate instead of Vice President Mike Pence. 

He went so far as to allege Benson "purposefully misprinted" the ballots, but there is no proof that the mistake was intentional. 

"This was not a mistake, it was done illegally and on purpose," Trump tweeted. "We want Mike!"

The president's allegations came as Michigan clerks this week worked to identify and correct a series of at least two ballot errors that excluded Pence and another that left off one of the Oakland County executive races on that county's ballots. 

Benson's office has maintained the mistakes, a product of "programmer error" and "computer glitch," were identified and addressed shortly after they were discovered.  

"Once again you're wrong," Benson responded to Trump in a Thursday tweet. "This was an unintended computer glitch that was caught & quickly corrected. Suggesting otherwise is false & misleading. Impacted voters immediately received an accurate ballot & guidance to ensure their vote counts."

The Bureau of Elections alerted clerks on Tuesday that more than 400 overseas ballots downloaded from the state voter file listed Libertarian vice presidential candidate Jeremy Cohen in the place of Pence. 

The bureau asked clerks to send a letter to those voters whose ballot had already been mailed or emailed to alert them to the mistake and issue new, corrected ballots. 

Individuals who voted the incorrect ballot would still have their votes counted and a vote for the incorrectly printed Trump-Cohen ticket would be counted as a vote for the Trump-Pence ticket. 

The ballots excluding Pence were produced accidentally through a programming error while state staff was attempting to fix an earlier mistake excluding an Oakland County executive race from some ballots, Benson's spokesman Jake Rollow said Thursday.

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Washington.

Republican Mike Kowall and Executive David Coulter, the Democratic incumbent appointed to the position upon the death of former Executive L. 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. 

Upon discovering the Oakland County error 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 Cohen taking Pence's place beneath Trump on ballots downloaded between 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday.

"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 Rollow, Benson's spokesman. "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. 

Republican former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said it's not unheard of for mistakes to happen in a minor, down-ballot race, but it's highly unusual for inaccuracies to occur in prominent races such as those for president or even Oakland County executive. 

"I’ve never seen it before, anything like it," said Johnson, now a state senator. 

"The good thing is it was caught fairly soon," she said. "The bad thing is it adds to the confusion. It takes away confidence."

Chris Thomas, a former elections director who served in the position for 36 years, said he can remember when a U.S. Senate race was accidentally left off early overseas or absentee ballots.  Another year, the wrong state Supreme Court justice was designated as an incumbent. 

In 2008, early ballot proofs that weren't sent out contained the improper spelling of Barack Obama's name.

"There are checks and balances to try and stop it, and local clerks help out by proofing their ballots," Thomas said. "It's something that an election official never wants to happen. But when it does, the question is: How quickly did you correct it? And are you upfront and forthright about it?”

Coulter's campaign said it had confidence that Benson would correct the problem promptly so 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 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. 

The problems with the military and overseas ballots were not Benson's first Twitter war with the president.

In May, Trump threatened Michigan funding over Benson's decision to send absentee ballot applications to Michigan's 7.7 million qualified voters ahead of the August and November election. 

In an initial tweet on the subject, Trump erroneously said Benson planned to send the actual absentee ballots to the 7.7 million voters, but he sent a later tweet noting it was absentee ballot applications. 

"This was done illegally and without authorization by a rogue Secretary of State. I will ask to hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!.." Trump said.

Benson replied by noting Trump's mistake in writing absentee ballots, instead of applications, and noted her "GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia" had done the same to cut down on in-person voting during the pandemic.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com