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Critic: Genesee election ‘not rigged’ but ‘bungled’

Jonathan Oosting
DetroitNews-Unknown

About 14,000 Genesee County voters were mailed a second absentee ballot this month after officials discovered deformities and irregularities in an initial printing run that made many ballots unreadable by voting machines.

A mass reprint ordered by Genesee County Clerk John Gleason has prompted the state to step in with guidance on how to minimize voter confusion and ensure that each vote will count — but not twice.

“Everything is on track now,” said Gleason, a Democrat. “There was a lot of thought that went into this process, a lot of discussion and good dialogue, and I think the recovery happened really fast for what the situation was.”

The Genesee County ballot snafu comes as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump continues to raise concerns about potential voter fraud and has refused to say whether he will honor the results of the Nov. 8 election if he loses.

Trump may find fodder for his “reckless” accusations in Genesee County, said former Flushing Mayor Archie Bailey, a Democrat who argued in an online newsletter that the county’s election system “is not rigged” but “bungled beyond belief.”

Gleason blames the faulty ballots on “a sloppy job” by the company that printed them, which he has declined to name. He said many ballots were skewed, not centered properly, smudged, flecked or had other problems.

But election clerks in 22 municipalities had already sent those ballots to voters. Those who received them have since been mailed a replacement ballot, identified by a green number at the bottom.

The first batch of ballots were not sent to voters in Flint or Burton, the county’s largest cities, which “saved a lot of confusion in those communities,” Gleason said.

Local clerks in affected municipalities will likely have a long night on Nov. 8.

Under a process recommended by the Michigan Bureau of Elections, returned replacement ballots will be processed as usual after polls close at 8 p.m. while the corresponding originals will be marked as spoiled. If a voter returns only an original, clerks and their staff will duplicate those votes onto new ballots that can then be fed into a voting machine.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Gleason said. “It’s routine work, but it’s enhanced this year because of the complete reprinting.”

Mistakes should have been caught

Gleason and Genesee County should have discovered the printing flaws before they sent any absentee ballots to local clerks, said Bailey, who previously served on the county board of commissioners.

He predicted “a whole lot” of losing candidates are going to challenge Genesee County results in the wake of the Nov. 8 election.

“I think there’s a lot of angst right now among people running for office in this county,” Bailey told The News.

Gleason called Trump’s broad claims of voter fraud an “attack” on local election clerks, noting multiple “checks and balances” in Michigan’s decentralized election system.

Every Genesee County absentee vote will count, said Gleason, who maintains there is “zero” chance any vote will count twice because replacement ballots will be cross-checked with the state’s Qualified Voter File database.

Local clerks will have to “save all the evidence of the election” until results are certified by the state Board of Canvassers, he said.

State guidance

The Michigan Bureau of Elections has provided Gleason and local election clerks with multiple forms of guidance, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

In addition to instructions on processing absentee ballots and a video on how to duplicate original ballots that are returned, the bureau provided a sample letter on instructions to be included with the replacement ballots.

Voters have been told to fill out their replacement ballot and destroy the original if they have not already sent it in.

The Michigan Republican Party, which employs volunteer poll watchers for most major elections, will be keeping a close eye on Genesee County next month, Executive Director Steve Ostrow said.

The party has “the utmost confidence” that Johnson will ensure county elections are run fairly, he said, but transferring votes from original to replacement ballots will introduce the potential for mistakes.

“We’re not worried about any sort of widespread voter fraud happening,” Ostrow said. “But there’s always the potential for human error, and we want to make sure if somebody does make a mistake, it’s caught and it doesn’t affect the outcome of any race.”

The county reprinted all ballots, not just absentee versions, and does not intend to pay for the original printing, Gleason said. It is difficult to determine how much the process will end up costing taxpayers, he said.

“It sure as (heck) isn’t going to be cheap,” Gleason said, noting officials in communities throughout the county “have had to work extensive overtime to get this thing back on track.”

joosting@detroitnews.com