Johnson: Michigan may boost post-election audits

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said Thursday voting irregularities in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan that spurred a state audit of the city’s ballots are prompting consideration of expanding post-election audits.

Voting machines in more than one-third of all Detroit precincts registered more votes than they should have during the presidential election, according to Wayne County records prepared at the request of The Detroit News. The voting irregularities prompted an audit of the city’s ballots following the election.

“We’ve done 1,400 of them, and we’re going to be looking at how we can broaden those audits even further,” Johnson said after a celebration of Michigan’s 180th anniversary as a state, without providing further details.

“We’re looking at that right now because we’re doing some auditing of some of the communities that had some issues, and then we’ll know more exactly what we need to do because there’s nothing more important to democracy than making sure that we have great elections.”

Detailed reports from the office of Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett show optical scanners at 248 of Detroit’s 662 precincts, or 37 percent, tabulated more ballots than the number of voters tallied by workers in the poll books.

The Detroit precincts were among those that couldn’t be counted during a statewide presidential recount that began in early December and ended shortly afterward following a Michigan Supreme Court and federal court decisions.

Johnson stressed that state officials did not find any change in election results in Michigan’s largest city or elsewhere in the state.

She said workers were simply not following election protocol meant to protect against ballot tampering. Workers had not been removing ballots from ballot boxes and transferring them to a secure and sealed bag at the end of the day, as they were supposed to.

“So each one of those ballots counted, the counts were accurate,” Johnson said.

“But unfortunately” they were miscounted at first because not all ballots were transferred from the tabulator or ballot box to the required bag, she said.

“I think we continue to look at ways on how we can make things better, and of course that was one of the things that we’re looking at and it didn’t happen just in Detroit. We had one place that used duct tape on their bag because they couldn’t find the seal that’s supposed to go on it ... and I think that’s so important. So I think we’re looking at the whole state, not just one area.”

A University of Michigan computer scientist who helped with the failed recount attempt funded by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein said routine audits of the state’s paper ballots would help ensure the results are accurate and safe from hackers.

“I think it would be wonderful,” said Alex Halderman, who told The News in October he and other support routine paper ballot audits. “The more that Michigan does to provide a quality control at the end of the election process, the better off voters are going to be in terms of their confidence.”

Halderman said the process needs to involve actually counting, by hand, a statistically valid cross section of the state’s ballots and comparing it against the results from optical scanner tabulator machines that Michigan uses. The professor has said even simple optical scanner machines that only count paper ballots can be manipulated with software that could potentially change ballot results.

Democrat Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly prevailed in Detroit and Wayne County. But Republican President Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes or 47.5 percent to 47.3 percent.

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 state law that bars recounts of 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.

Johnson did not provide a timeline on when ballot audits might be expanded, or whether they may be in place for the next statewide governor’s election in two years.