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Stein recount sparks Mich. vote to double fees

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan would double fees for long-shot election recounts under legislation approved Tuesday by the state Senate following a partial hand recount of 2016 presidential votes prompted by Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

Stein petitioned for a Michigan recount despite receiving less than two percent of the vote in the state's Nov. 7 election that saw Republican President Donald Trump officially defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 10,704 votes.

Michigan law required Stein to pay $973,250 for the massive hand recount — $125 per physical and absentee ballot precinct — but Secretary of State Ruth Johnson's office estimated the actual cost for the state and local clerks could approach $2 million.

The recount was eventually halted by state and federal judges, who ruled Stein was not an “aggrieved party” under Michigan law because she had no chance of winning the election. The state refunded Stein $632,125 for precincts that were not counted.

The Senate legislation would double recount fees for a candidate who lost an election by more than 5 percentage points, raising rates from $125 to $250 per precinct. It would not alter reduced rates of $25 for candidates who lost by fewer than 50 votes or 0.5 percentage points.

“We don’t want to discourage future recounts, but we also acknowledge the fact that when there’s a recount ... the costs should be paid for by the candidate and not by local local governments and municipals,” sponsoring Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, told reporters after the 27-11 vote.

Stein framed the recount as an integrity test for Michigan’s election system to determine whether voters may have been disenfranchised due to potential voting machine hacks or fraud. Neither was discovered during the partial recount, which instead revealed significant human errors in Detroit and problems in other jurisdictions.

Trump also repeatedly questioned whether the process was “rigged” in the run-up to the election he won.

Sen. Steve Bieda said he could not support a proposal to increase recount fees in the wake of a contentious election cycle that saw “people on both sides of the aisle” question the fairness and accuracy of the election.

“I think this is a bad message to send at this time with this humongous increase,” said Bieda, D-Warren. “I’ve served here 12 years, and I’ve never seen a 100 percent increase on anything.”

Southfield Attorney Mark Brewer, who represented Stein in Michigan, said a new recount fee schedule could be reasonable if the state also clarified the definition of an “aggrieved” candidate established by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which the bill does not do.

“That standard is a mishmash of all kinds of legal stands,” Brewer said. “It’s just going to create lots of litigation and frankly just deny folks the opportunity to get a recount even if they can afford the fee.”

Michigan's presidential recount began Dec. 5 but was halted three days later by a federal court order. Local officials completed hand recounts in 2,729 of the state's 7,786 precincts.

Trump widened his lead over Stein by 668 votes in the partial recount, but Clinton would have picked up a net gain of 103 votes on Trump had the limited results counted. The votes were not added to the official tally, however, because the recount was halted before completion.

County and municipal clerks incur numerous costs during election recounts, even trucking expenses for transporting ballots, said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat and legislative co-chair for the Michigan Association of County Clerks, which supports the legislation.

Standard fees fully covered the cost for the completed hand recount in Ingham County, Byrum said, noting she was able to use the county fairgrounds arena to stage the massive undertaking.

“Many others had to pay for space,” she said. “I had to rent tables and chairs. The expense would warrant an increase for that special category the Stein campaign fell into.”

The recount fee legislation now heads to the Michigan House for additional consideration.

joosting@detroitnews.com