Dan Kildee diagnosed with cancer: 'I am going to get through this'

Audit pings state bureau of elections on voter file, training, campaign finance oversight

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan’s Bureau of Elections failed to properly safeguard the state’s file of 7.5 million qualified voters, a discrepancy that allowed an unauthorized user to access the file and increased the risk of an ineligible elector voting in Michigan, according to a report from the Office of Auditor General. 

Elections officials lack proper training in more than 14% of counties, cities and townships, the audit also found. And the bureau did not make timely reviews for campaign statements, lobby reports and campaign finance complaints.

The audit — conducted between Oct. 1, 2016, and April 30 — also found in the qualified voter file “230 registered electors who had an age that was greater than 122 years, the oldest officially documented person to ever live,” according to the Friday report.

The bureau said further investigation was needed on the 230 individuals identified by the audit to confirm their birth dates, noting the discrepancy might be a result of a system the bureau uses to identify information it needed to further evaluate.

“Individuals with no recorded date of birth have been deliberately coded with an implausible birth date (such as 5/5/1850) to more clearly indicate records needing further follow-up,” the report said.

The unauthorized user was a former employee, the bureau said, but there was no modification or destruction of records in the qualified voter file in the period reviewed.

The bureau also agreed to work with local election officials to avoid clerical errors in voter history, but noted that since Michigan is a decentralized system “this is legally a local — note state — responsibility.”

The audit found the Bureau of Elections did not provide timely reviews of 79% of campaign statements, 42% of lobby reports and 67% of campaign finance complaints selected for the audit. 

The bureau is required by law to review complaints within five business days, lobby reports within 10 days and campaign statements within four days. 

In the Friday report, the bureau said it will continue to work to meet the complaint and lobby report windows for review, but said it could not “realistically meet” the four-day window to review campaign statements. 

The bureau “indicated that it will work to seek staffing increases that would allow for full review within the timeframes required, as well as a possible legislative change to lengthen the four-day review requirement,” the report said.

The report came 2 1/2 months before the state's March 10 presidential primary and a little over 10 months before Michigan voters cast ballots in the November general election.

The reviewed information fell largely under the tenure of Republican former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took office Jan. 1. 

The audit did not review the implementation of Proposals 2 and 3, which were passed by voters in November 2018. The proposals change how political lines are drawn and allow no-reason absentee voting. 

The bureau, which is under the Secretary of State’s purview, had 35 employees at the end of fiscal year 2018 and spent $24.6 million that year.

The bureau has begun to address some of the areas in the report and will continue to make improvements through 2020, according to Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson.

Among those changes are adding the state's first election security specialists, expanded risk-limit audits and future implementation of recommendations from the election security advisory committee. 

"Our elections are secure — the audit did not find any instances of illegal voting or improper modification of voter registration records — and the Bureau of Elections is continually updating its election security infrastructure," Rollow said in a statement. 

Johnson declined to comment on the audit. 

Even with the audit findings, Sally Williams, Michigan’s elections director, said the state is in “great shape” for the 2020 presidential election. In 2016, Donald Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes, his narrowest margin of victory nationally. 

"The state is ready, and our election officials are ready,"  Williams said in an interview Thursday. 

The audit came out three days before Williams retires as Michigan’s elections director. She has worked for the department of state for 34 years and has been elections director since 2017. 

Despite the reportable and material conditions it noted, the audit found the Bureau of Elections largely was "sufficient" when it came to maintaining the integrity of the voter file, training election officials and complying with the Campaign Finance Act, and it was "moderately effective" in applying access controls over the qualified voter file system.

The bureau agreed to make changes to address the four conditions noted by the audit, one of which included incomplete election training among election officials in 12 counties, 38 cities and 290 townships. 

The bureau also agreed to explore more controls over the qualified voter file but noted there wasn’t “a single verified case that an ineligible person voted” among the cases reviewed by the auditor.

As election training offered by the state increased in recent years, the number of clerks and election officials inadequately prepared for elections has shrunk despite some serious obstacles, said Kristen Millard, president of the Michigan Association of County Clerks. At a training event earlier this month in Frankenmuth, the association had its largest turnout to date. 

"As revenue sharing goes down, clerk staff goes down and it's harder to get out of the office," said Millard, who serves as Montcalm County clerk. "But I’m certain that if that number were to be checked again, that number would be much, much less.”

Williams said the state has “extensive” training requirements for local election officials. While participation in initial training courses is high, Williams said she would like to see more participation in continuing education programs. 

However, she said the state likely sent out more training material in 2019 than any other non-statewide election year previously because of changes taking effect from voters’ approval of a ballot proposal on voting rights in November 2018. Among other changes, the proposal allows for no-reason absentee voting in Michigan. 

Asked about her concerns as she leaves her job, Williams she’s saddened by the level of distrust people have in elections. Stories about the people who run elections, the security checks in place and the controls in the system aren’t being told, she said. 

"People really are prepared," Williams said. "And I don’t think you see or hear about that very much."

She added, "Hopefully, it will speak for itself when 2020 comes through without any real problems."