State audit finds 216 questionable votes in Detroit

Jonathan Oosting and Michael Gerstein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

A state audit released Thursday attributed a series of mismatched Detroit vote totals in the Nov. 8 presidential election to “an abundance of human errors” by precinct workers — not widespread voter fraud.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections audited 136 of the city’s most irregular precincts — “the worst of the worst,” it said — after a Wayne County canvass revealed “significant discrepancies” in the number of voters and ballots in 392 Detroit precincts.

The bureau “found no evidence of pervasive voter fraud,” according to the 24-page audit.

Although the majority, or 71, of the 136 precincts could not be balanced, “the magnitude of the discrepancies between the total number of voters recorded in the poll book and number of ballots tabulated was reduced significantly” as a result of the audit.

More than half of 136 Detroit precincts examined had nearly 600 questionable votes, a total that was reduced to 216 questionable votes after extensive review. There were 128 more ballots cast than recorded voters, and 88 fewer ballots cast than voters, producing a net overvote of 40 ballots.

It resulted in an error rate of about 0.08 percent out of the 250,000 votes cast in Detroit during the Nov. 8 presidential election. Republican President Donald Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton, who prevailed in Detroit 95 percent to 3 percent.

In a separate statewide review, the state also found 31 Michiganians appeared to vote twice — once by absentee ballot and once in person on Election Day — and is referring those voters to Attorney General Bill Schuette’s Office for criminal investigation.

It is the first time that Chris Thomas, state elections director since 1981, has referred double-voting cases to the attorney general. Twenty-nine cases involve voters from Metro Detroit, with 14 of them from the city.

“The city of Detroit and the entire state have made progress in election administration in recent years, but this audit highlights key areas in need of improvement,” Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said in a statement. “I have directed Bureau of Elections staff to assist city election officials in making needed changes to poll worker training and recruitment efforts.

“As part of our far-reaching anti-fraud efforts, my office will aggressively root out illegal voting.”

Duggan: ‘It was terrible’

City Clerk Janice Winfrey and Elections Director Daniel Baxter didn’t return phone calls seeking comment. Winfrey said in late January the audit was “vindicating the Detroit Department of Elections of any wrongdoing,” but added the audit prompted her to expand training for poll workers.

Mayor Mike Duggan said he fully supports the state’s recommendations.

“We can’t have that happen again,” Duggan told The Detroit News. “It was terrible. Everybody in the city knows it was terrible, and the good news was Michigan didn’t decide the national election because it would have shown a real spotlight.

“... Voter lists are not up to date, our equipment testing wasn’t the way it should have been and we did not have people sufficiently trained, and that’s just not excusable in this day and age,” he said.

The bureau attributed many Detroit vote discrepancies to the mishandling of provisional ballots, “which are issued to individuals whose names do not appear on the precinct list but who claim to have registered to vote 30 days prior to an election,” according to the audit. In many cases, precinct workers failed to record those ballots correctly.

Other errors were caused by misuse of electronic poll books, including precinct inspectors who failed to properly enter data into the computer system and did not properly log provisional and spoiled ballots, according to the audit. Additionally, some precinct workers failed to properly document irregularities, including tabulator jams.

“These mistakes caused a number of errors, most notably in the number of ballots compared to the number of voters,” the audit said.

While Winfrey blamed the errors on aging vote tabulators, the bureau “found no widespread failure of voting equipment that accounted for the breadth and depth of problems experienced in Detroit.” Duggan noted all communities statewide were using the same equipment and weren’t having the same problems.

As a result of the audit, Johnson has ordered staff to work closely with Detroit election workers to resolve performance issues, tasking them with improving worker training and recruitment programs. They now will be trained for election work once every three months instead of the old practice of getting one training session right before the election.

Training a ‘severe issue’

All of the audited precincts had a mismatch between recorded voters and ballots of three or more, according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections. The Secretary of State’s Office said the audit reviewed thousands of election records, including ballots, ballot containers, ballot transfer cases, voter applications, precinct poll books and Detroit’s election day training materials.

Krista Haroutunian, chairwoman of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, said the audit findings weren’t surprising. She said poll worker training has been a “severe issue” in Detroit over the years. They had been improving but got worse this year and the “process went backwards,” Haroutunian said.

“Some of this stuff has happened before, it’s just that it hasn’t happened in such a great number,” she said.

“Once or twice it’s going to happen. In this particular case, it was: ‘Oh my god, why is it happening so often?’ ”

The results were supposed to be balanced by temporary employees hired by the Office of Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett to conduct the canvass.

The Detroit News sought the identity and pay of workers through the Freedom of Information Act, but the request was denied by both the county clerk and county’s Department of Management and Budget, which pays workers. Both claimed no records exist.

The audit was prompted in part because ballot boxes opened during the statewide recount requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein had fewer ballots than poll workers recorded on Election Day. The partial recount ended after the Michigan Supreme Court and a federal judge ruled that Stein’s request was illegal because she was not an “aggrieved candidate” who had a shot at winning.

The Detroit News was the first to report in December that more than half of Detroit would be ineligible for the recount because of the irregularities based on county reports it obtained. State law that bars recounts for unbalanced precincts or ones with broken seals.

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

Republican state senators in December called for an investigation in Wayne County, including one precinct where a Detroit ballot box contained only 50 of the 306 ballots listed in a poll book, according to a Trump observer. State election staff confirmed that “all but one of the voted ballots had been left behind in the tabulator on Election Night” in Precinct 152, according to the audit.

“The audit refutes suspicions that the relatively small number of ballots placed in the ballot container could have been illegally tabulated again and again,” according to the report.

Staff Writers Christine Ferretti and Joel Kurth contributed.