State chief: Nothing ‘fraudulent’ in Detroit election

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — An ongoing but largely completed state audit of the Nov. 8 presidential election in Detroit has yet to produce any evidence of fraud, Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Chris Thomas said Tuesday.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson’s office launched the audit in mid-December after voting irregularities were discovered during a partial recount of the election, including mismatches between ballot boxes and recorded vote totals in nearly 60 percent of the city’s precincts.

While state auditors continue to review data in Lansing, they have finished on-the-ground work in Detroit. A report is expected in early February.

“We essentially are finding so far — it’s certainly not final — but we’ve not run into anything we’d call fraudulent,” Thomas said. “We’ve seen a lot of performance issues, and that’s primarily what we’ve run into.”

The bureau has “been working closely” with the city of Detroit to take a closer look at several precincts where voting machine tabulator totals and poll books “didn’t balance,” he explained.

Detroit issues surfaced during a statewide recount of the Michigan election that was requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein but was eventually halted by state and federal judges before it was completed. Democrat Hillary Clinton gained 103 votes on now-President Donald Trump in a hand recount of 2,099,578 ballots in 22 of Michigan’s 83 counties, including 10 that were fully completed before court intervention.

Michigan law bars recounts for unbalanced precincts or ones with broken seals, which happened in 10.6 percent of precincts statewide. The issues were worst in Detroit, where officials could not recount votes in 392 of the city’s 662 precincts, or 59.2 percent.

Republican state senators called for an investigation after a Trump recount watcher said a ballot box in one Detroit precinct contained only 50 of 306 ballots listed in a poll book.

There were roughly 20 Detroit precincts where vote totals were far out of balance, Thomas said, but the state is primarily pinning those irregularities on human error the night of the election, when staff should have examined any vote total irregularities.

“These are just things that really should not have happened,” Thomas said.

The Wayne County Clerk’s Office reported last month that Detroit elections officials waited several days to deliver many poll books.

County officials said 95 poll books from Detroit’s 662 precincts were missing when they started canvassing the day after the election. Five of those poll books, which contain the names of voters and ensure the integrity of elections, were never delivered to county canvassers.

Thomas said the audit has uncovered several performance issues at receiving boards, which he said are a “critical” part of the election process. Detroit operated several locations where officials were supposed to deliver ballot boxes and poll books on election night.

“These receiving boards are supposed to look to make sure all the seals are properly affixed, and I think they did a pretty good job with that,” Thomas said. “Where I think they fell down in many instances is where there were balancing issues and they did not get the documentation.”

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey and city elections director Daniel Baxter have said little about the election performance issues or state audit.

Last month, Baxter placed much of the blame on what he called outdated, decade-old voting machines, saying 87 broke on Election Day. The city had a two-page ballot, and frequent jams led to inaccurate counts when workers failed to reset counters, he said.

The State Administrative Board on Tuesday approved up to $82.1 million in state spending over the next 10 years for new voting machines, software and maintenance. Michigan plans to fully replace its fleet by the August 2018 primary, but Thomas said old machines used this cycle were not the primary cause of the irregularities in Detroit and other parts of the state.

“Most of the recount issues really were not attached to the equipment,” he said. “They were balancing issues, and in fact the equipment helped with the balancing in many cases.”

The new machines will have digital-scanning technology that should reduce jams, Thomas said, but the new machines will not fully eliminate the potential for human error by elections workers.

“It’s going to come to training,” he said. “It really does come back to that.”