Canvassers demand answers after 72% of Detroit's absentee ballot counts were off

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Recorded ballot counts in 72% of Detroit's absentee voting precincts didn't match the number of ballots cast, spurring officials in Michigan's largest county to ask the state to investigate ahead of a pivotal presidential election.

Without an explanation from Detroit election workers for the mismatches, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers requested this week for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office to examine the "training and processes" used in Detroit's Aug. 4 primary, which one official described as a "perfect storm" of challenges. The board is charged with certifying election results.

In 46% of all Detroit's precincts — absentee and Election Day — vote counts were out of balance, according to information presented Tuesday to the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. Specifically, the number of ballots tracked in precinct poll books did not match the number of ballots counted.

The situation could amplify the spotlight on absentee ballots in Michigan ahead of an election for which record levels of mail-in voting are expected and President Donald Trump is already raising concerns about how votes will be handled.

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers approved this resolution asking the Michigan Secretary of State's office to investigate "the training and processes" used by Detroit for the 2020 primary election.

The election results for the primary weren't incorrect, said Jonathan Kinloch, a Democrat and one of the canvassing board's four members. But, he said, something had gone wrong in the process of tracking ballots precinct by precinct.

Having balanced precincts is particularly important in Michigan because precincts whose poll books don’t match with ballots can’t be recounted, according to state law. Instead, the original election results would stand.

"It was a perfect storm," Kinloch said.

The "storm" involved a record number of absentee ballots being cast in Michigan's primary and seasoned election workers not feeling it was safe to help with administering the election because of COVID-19, he added.

The Wayne County board is asking Benson, a Detroit resident, to investigate "the training and processes used by the City of Detroit" in the primary election. The board also requested that the first-term Democrat appoint a state monitor to oversee the counting of absentee ballots in the general election.

The Board of State Canvassers is set to meet at 2 p.m. Friday to certify election results from around Michigan. November will bring Michigan's first statewide general election with no-reason absentee voting after voter approval of a 2018 constitutional amendment.

On Thursday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he was reaching out to Benson and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, who administers elections in the city, "to make sure this gets fixed immediately."

"We cannot have a recurrence of these problems in November," Duggan said.

Detroit had problems with precinct count mismatches in the November 2016 election. Election officials couldn’t reconcile vote totals for 59% of precincts in the city during a countywide canvass of vote results with most of the issues involving too many votes. 

Those votes couldn't be recounted when Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein demanded a statewide recount following Donald Trump's initial 13,000-vote victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton. A recount was started but stopped and nullified by the courts when Stein was ruled ineligible for a recount request because she had no chance at victory.

The results eventually were certified as a 10,704-vote victory for Trump, the first Republican presidential nominee to win Michigan in 28 years. It was the Republican businessman's smallest margin of victory in the nation.

This information on ballot tracking in Detroit's precincts was presented at the Wayne County Board of Canvassers meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

Primary problems

The problems with the Detroit's numbers in the Aug. 4 primary included ballots being put in the wrong tracking containers, said Monica Palmer, one of the Republican members of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. 

"It was so inaccurate that we can't even attempt to make it right," said Palmer, chairwoman of the board.

Winfrey said the vast majority of the absentee voting precincts in the city were less than three ballots off, plus or minus. Being off by three or fewer is allowed, Winfrey said — but it's unclear what policy she was referring to.

Similar things happen in every election, she added, and they're the result of a labor-intensive process and people making mistakes after working 20 hours in a day.

Detroit's voting problems in 2016 led to a Michigan Bureau of Elections audit of 136 of the city's most irregular precincts, which found an "an abundance of human errors" but no evidence of "pervasive voter fraud." There were 216 questionable votes that resulted in a net overvote of 40 ballots — or 40 more ballots cast than voters.

Winfrey said four years ago the audit would vindicate the clerk's office of wrongdoing. But at the time, Duggan slammed the ballot mismatches. "Everybody in the city knows it was terrible," the mayor said then, "and the good news was Michigan didn’t decide the national election because it would have shown a real spotlight."

The audit findings prompted Republican then-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson to have state election officials assist Winfrey's office in changing poll worker training and recruitment efforts.

On Thursday, Winfrey continued to call on the Legislature to allow local clerks to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day to help deal with a surge of absentee voting. In 2018, Michigan approved a constitutional amendment to allow for no-reason absentee voting, and state officials are encouraging absentee voting this year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Winfrey also said Thursday that people shouldn't "expect perfection or anything close" to it after elections staffers have worked more than 20 hours.

Michigan's new no-reason absentee voting option is expected to increase the use of absentee voting.

Board: Pick monitor for Detroit

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers, which includes two Democrats and two Republicans, voted unanimously Tuesday to certify the county's election results after hearing about problems that election officials had with checking the vote totals in specific precincts.

The totals for about 46% of Detroit's precincts — the combined Election Day and absentee voting precincts — were out of balance by at least one ballot, according to information presented at the meeting.

In a resolution, the Wayne County board voted unanimously to request that Benson "appoint a monitor to supervise the training and administration" of Detroit's absentee voter count boards in the general election.

Of 503 absentee voting precincts in the city, there were 131 that were off by plus or minus one ballot without an explanation, according to information presented at the meeting. There were 85 off by two ballots without an explanation, 48 that were off by three, 26 off by four and 73 off by five ballots.

When it came to 503 Election Day voting precincts, 104 tallies were out of balance by at least one ballot, with the majority of them, 74, being off by plus or minus one, according to information presented at the Tuesday meeting.

The Secretary of State's Office is aware of the county board's request, said Tracy Wimmer, Benson's spokeswoman.

"The Bureau of Elections will work with the City of Detroit to identify any errors that may have occurred in the processing of absent voter ballots and to implement any needed improvements to training procedures in advance of November," Wimmer added.

The Michigan Republican Party blasted the apparent problems with tracking vote totals in Wayne County.

"The people of Michigan deserve to know that their elections are being conducted fairly and competently, but today's news shows that Wayne County and the City of Detroit can't conduct an election to even the most basic of standards," said Laura Cox, the party's chairwoman.

Kinloch and Palmer said the situation showed the need for more elections workers to help process absentee ballots this fall.

A record 1.6 million people in Michigan voted by mail for the Aug. 4 primary. That number is expected to be even higher in the Nov. 3 general election.