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Mich.’s elections designer: No ‘easy path to fraud’

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
  • “I don’t really know how I would do it,” Michigan’s Chris Thomas said about how to rig the results
  • GOP’s Donald Trump contends the presidential election will be “rigged” to favor Hillary Clinton
  • Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck: “The deck is really stacked against voter fraud in Michigan”
  • Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said her team has worked to clean up the voter rolls

Lansing — Chris Thomas has been at the forefront of designing and fine-tuning how Michiganians vote in elections as the state’s elections director for the past 35 years.

As a result, Thomas said he can’t fathom how an election could be successfully rigged in Michigan.

“I don’t really know how I would do it,” he said. “I don’t see any easy path to doing a fraud that would make a difference in an outcome of an election.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s contention this election will be “rigged” at the ballot box in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton has renewed a focus on the integrity of voting across the country as Nov. 8 nears.

Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud or the potential for election results to be manipulated conflicts with how Michigan’s municipal clerks conduct elections under a prescribed set of laws, election officials said.

“The deck is really stacked against voter fraud in Michigan,” said Justin Roebuck, the Republican clerk of Ottawa County. “To rig an election or defraud an election, the numbers that would have to do it are significant.”

Waterford Township Trustee Donna Kelley, left, and Clerk Sue Camilleri run a check of voting machines that scan Michigan’s paper ballots. Municipalities do such tests statewide before Election Day.

To start, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office has removed from the voter rolls 889,000 people who have died or moved out of the state since 2011. The Republican incumbent argues that this move has reduced the potential for voter fraud.

Voter impersonation at polling precincts in Michigan requires someone without a driver’s license or photo identification to sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury and other felonies to obtain a ballot, Thomas said.

“That’s a heck of a deterrent,” Thomas said. “How long do you want to sit in jail?”

At polling precincts and on absentee ballot envelopes, the voter’s signature must match the signature on file in the state’s voter registration rolls.

“Everything gets checked — and it gets checked again,” Livonia City Clerk Susan Nash said.

If a voter’s signature on the envelope of a sealed absentee ballot doesn’t match the signature on file, local clerks will call or even visit the voter at home, Nash said.

“We’re actually making sure the individual who signed that ballot envelope is in fact that person,” said Joe Rozell, elections director in the Oakland County Clerk’s Office.

To guard against someone trying to vote absentee using a deceased person’s identity, the U.S. Postal Service is required to return absentee ballots if the person no longer lives at the address on file in the voter rolls, Rozell said.

“That’s kind of integrity step No. 1,” he said.

‘Paper ballots don’t lie’

Before Election Day, municipal clerks run tests on the machines that scan Michigan’s paper ballots. Unlike some states, Michigan opted a decade ago against buying direct-recording electronic voting machines. The machines are not connected to the internet.

“We don’t have one big central computer with the data — that’s another misconception,” said Johnson, who has expressed “full confidence” in Michigan’s decentralized elections.

The paper ballots serve as a back-up record of each vote cast in case there’s a recount or the voting machine’s tapes are lost or damaged.

“That’s a pretty good security system for the moment, especially in terms of protecting against hacking,” said Edward Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

Recounts in close local elections have found voter markings on their ballot can sometimes be missed by the machines, but the impact on the results is often negligible, said John Pirich, a Lansing-based election law attorney.

“Machines are not perfect,” said Pirich, who called voter fraud “non-existent.”

But even if the machine misreads a ballot, bipartisan canvassing boards spend two weeks reviewing the election tallies and can check ballots for any sign of irregularities in the results.

“The paper ballots don’t lie,” Roebuck said.

Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar for cyber policy and security at Stanford University, said the electronic database of Michigan’s 7.5 million registered voters appears more vulnerable than the voting machines.

“If I were somebody who was determined to hack the election in Michigan … the voting machines aren’t the place I would attack,” Lin told The Detroit News. “I would attack the voter registration databases.”

Michigan’s 4,810 voting precincts across 83 counties are staffed with a split number of election workers from both political parties, as well as partisan poll watchers to challenge any ballots cast by individuals who don’t have a photo ID.

“Every part of this process is monitored by both Republicans and Democrats, from the inspectors working in the precinct to the clerks — many of them are partisan — to the county board of canvassers,” Rozell said.

As Thomas noted: “There’s challengers watching challengers out there.”

Waterford Township election aide Cheri Evans helps test a machine. “We don’t have one big central computer with the data,” said Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who is confident in Michigan’s decentralized elections.

Issues have cropped up

Election officials acknowledged instances of irregularities in voting and problems with ballots have given some politicians and pundits a license to cast doubt on election results.

In this election, Genesee County recently reissued 14,000 absentee ballots after officials discovered the ballots had deformities and couldn’t be read by the tabulation machines.

Genesee County Clerk John Gleason blamed the faulty ballots on “a sloppy job” by the printing company, which he has declined to name.

Detroit’s elections have come under scrutiny over the years.

In 2009, mayoral candidate Tom Barrow claimed voter fraud and requested a recount after losing to Mayor Dave Bing, 58 percent to 42 percent. The recount resulted in a change of few votes, but 60,000 regular and absentee ballots could not be recounted because of irregularities.

In 2005, a court ruling in a case alleging fraud greatly restricted how then-Clerk Jackie Currie could distribute absentee ballots and applications for them.

A Detroit News investigation found that, under Currie, ballots were completed by those declared mentally incompetent by judges and returned by those who claimed to live in abandoned nursing homes and vacant lots. The News also found the city’s voter rolls included as many as 300,000 people who had died or moved from the city.

After the 2005 election, failed mayoral candidate Freman Hendrix claimed he had personal knowledge of corruption in the city’s elections. But there was no evidence the suspected voter fraud substantially affected the mayoral election in which incumbent Kwame Kilpatrick beat Hendrix by 14,500 votes.

“Michigan does not have a culture of fraudulent elections,” said Thomas, the state elections director. “It’s not in our state’s DNA, if you will.”

Johnson has said her team has worked to clean up the voter rolls, including in 2012 a “very tedious” analysis of 58,000 driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards that found 963 non-citizens registered to vote.

After checking voting records, state officials found 54 of the non-citizens voted 95 times or several election cycles. Johnson’s office discovered the non-citizens were inadvertently registered to vote when they legally obtained a driver’s license.

The Secretary of State’s Office has since changed its procedures at branch offices for registering drivers to vote and removed the non-citizens from the voter rolls, spokesman Fred Woodhams said.

“That’s no longer an issue,” he said.

Thomas, who has worked for Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, said he finds Trump’s election-rigging rhetoric troubling.

“It’s very concerning that people talk about fraud don’t bring forward evidence of fraud being committed or being planned,” he said. “It’s a very loose topic.”

Roebuck, the Ottawa County clerk, said his office has received a steady stream of phone calls this fall from voters concerned about fraud.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the narrative and the rhetoric from the top of the ticket from the Republican’s nominee is really driving the concern,” Roebuck said. “I also think it’s irresponsible for folks to make accusations when they don’t understand the process, because that ultimately undermines everyone’s confidence in the system.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

Staff Writers Michael Gerstein and Jonathan Oosting contributed.