Stein: Election audits should be automatic in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing – Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein said Wednesday her abbreviated recount effort showed the vote “was not carefully guarded” in Michigan and should spur legislative action to require automatic post-election audits.

Republican President-elect Donald Trump was poised to maintain his 10,000-vote margin over Democrat Hillary Clinton when Michigan’s hand recount was halted more than two million ballots in, but Stein suggested the rare glimpse under the hood of the state election system served an important purpose.

“What we discovered is we do not have a system that we can trust,” Stein said in a radio interview on Michigan’s Big Show, citing complaints from Detroit election officials who said 87 optical scanner voting machines failed on Election Day, along with other documented vote count and ballot handling irregularities.

The Massachusetts physician raised more than $7 million to pay for presidential election recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump gained votes in Wisconsin, but courts halted efforts in Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Clinton had gained 103 votes in the partial recount.

Stein failed to show she was an “aggrieved” candidate in Michigan, a legal condition for a recount request, and did not present “evidence of significant fraud or mistake” that would warrant court intervention, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith said in a ruling that effectively stopped the hand recount on Dec. 8.

Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams on Wednesday disputed Stein’s suggestion that Michigan’s election system cannot be trusted.

“The fact that after 2 million ballots were reviewed by hand, the second-place candidate added only 103 votes to her margin speaks for itself,” he said.

Michigan’s optical-scan voting systems, which the state plans to replace by late 2018, are “incredibly accurate,” Woodhams continued. “Recount after recount over the past decade has shown that.”

He pointed to a 2014 recount in Kalamazoo County where the margin of victory increased by two votes after a review of more than 80,000 ballots. Sen. Margaret O’Brien gained 15 votes, while former Rep. Sean McCann gained 13 votes. The third-place candidate, Libertarian Lorence Wenke, lost 92 votes due to a clerical error unrelated to the voting machines.

“The human error found in that recount shows why machines are generally agreed to be more accurate than human beings — especially when those human beings are tired after working a 16-hour day on election night,” Woodhams said.

In mid-October, cybersecurity experts told The Detroit News that Michigan should change its policy and routinely audit a sample of its paper ballots to protect against election fraud since hackers had targeted the election systems of more than 20 states. One of the experts was University of Michigan cybersecurity expert Alex Halderman, who joined Stein’s call for a recount in the Great Lakes State.

While the presidential recount has not yet produced any clear evidence of voter fraud, Stein defended it Wednesday, suggesting it helped shed light on aging voting machines, “clerical errors,” missing poll books and “errors in the security and handling of the ballots.”

As The Detroit News first reported, machines in more than one-third of all Detroit precincts registered more votes than they should have in the Nov. 8 presidential election, tabulating more ballots than the number of voters tallied by workers in poll books.

Detroit elections officials also waited several days to deliver nearly 100 poll books to Wayne County officials charged with certifying the presidential election.

Overall, state records show 10.6 percent of the precincts in the 22 counties that began the retabulation process couldn’t be recounted because of a state law that bars recounts for unbalanced precincts or ones with broken seals.

The problems were the worst in Detroit, where discrepancies meant officials couldn’t recount votes in 392 precincts, or nearly 60 percent. And two-thirds of those precincts had too many votes.

Human error is suspected rather than voter fraud, but irregularities discovered through the recount process have prompted an ongoing state audit of Detroit precincts. Stein argued such reviews should be commonplace.

“In an age in which we know there are so many mechanical failures, this is something that you want built into the system. You shouldn’t have to raise millions of dollars — you know, hold a bake sale on steroids — in order for us voters to be confident the system is working for us.”

Michigan is one of 17 states that does not require any specific form of post-election audit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-nine states require post-election audits, while four others conduct audits in certain circumstances.

Stein’s three-state recount push was prompted by a group of computer scientists who argued hand recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were “the only way to know whether cyberattacks changed the results.”

UM’s Halderman, part of that group, also urged states to update their audit and recount procedures.

“There are fast and inexpensive ways to verify (or correct) computer voting results using a risk-limiting audit, a statistical method that involves manually inspecting randomly selected paper ballots,” he wrote last month. “Officials need to begin preparing soon to make sure all of these improvements are ready before the next big election.”

Stein pointed to New Mexico as a potential model. The state’s 2009 law calls for audits of all federal and gubernatorial elections. An audit of random precinct samples can initiate a full-scale recount if significant discrepancies are found.

While Michigan does not require post-election audits, a 2012 law backed by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson allows the Bureau of Elections to audit local precincts to ensure clerks and workers are following required steps. The bureau has conducted more than 1,200 of these audits in the past four years, Woodhams said.

“While the audits don’t involve reviewing ballots, recounts regularly occur and the ballots are reviewed then,” he said.

The state’s ongoing audit of “a few dozen” Detroit precincts is different than a standard compliance audit, Woodhams said, because a number of precincts in the city had significantly more recorded voters than ballots stored in the container.

“Detroit election officials say that the missing ballots, which had been counted, were left in the tabulator bin at the end of the night,” he said. “We are verifying what occurred. If we become aware of similar issues in other parts of the state, we could review them as well.”

Twitter: @jonathanoosting