Michigan election officials call Detroit's primary voting problems 'appalling,' 'alarming'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — All four members of the State Board of Canvassers on Friday blasted problems with counting ballots in Detroit's primary election as "alarming" and "concerning," and one asked whether Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson should intervene this fall.

"I think we need an investigation with a conclusion that somebody else is going to run that election or not," said Norm Shinkle, one of two Republicans on the board that's in charge of certifying statewide election results.

The criticism came a day after The Detroit News reported Wayne County election data that showed 72% of the absentee voting precincts in Michigan's largest city had ballot counts that were out of balance by at least one vote for the Aug. 4. primary. That means the number of voters tracked in precinct poll books did not match the number of ballots counted.

Denise Crapps of Detroit uses social distancing while voting at Precinct 282 on Tuesday, August 4, 2020, at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Detroit.

The handling of ballots is in the national spotlight this year as a surge of absentee voting is expected during the COVID-19 pandemic and ahead of a pivotal election, in which President Donald Trump has already criticized mail-in voting.

When it comes to absentee and Election Day precincts, the percentage of Detroit's precincts with out-of-balance totals was 46%, according to the county data.

Michigan's largest city has had similar problems in the past. Election officials couldn’t reconcile vote totals for 59% of precincts in 2016.

In 2017, then-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson ordered that the state help retrain election workers and provide other assistance to correct what a Michigan Bureau of Elections audit of 136 Detroit precincts called "significant discrepancies" in votes and “an abundance of human errors."

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.

The Board of State Canvassers was scheduled to certify the statewide results of the Aug. 4 primary on Friday but the virtual meeting stopped after about 30 minutes because of technical issues. The board scheduled a new meeting for 10 a.m. Monday.

Before the meeting ended, however, the four board members focused on the problems with Detroit's primary election.

"I find this whole thing appalling," said Julie Matuzak, a Democratic board member.

Matuzak called for a community program to get more people involved as precinct workers.

On Thursday, Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey said the long primary day that election workers spent on the job — some worked more than 20 hours — led to the problems. She also said the Legislature should allow clerks to begin processing absentee ballots before Election Day to help them better deal with the amount of ballots expected this fall.

A record 1.6 million people in Michigan voted by mail for the Aug. 4 primary, which itself set a new record for overall turnout of 2.5 million voters.

Norm Shinkle

Winfrey noted the vast majority of the absentee voting precincts in the city with totals that didn't balance were less than three ballots off, plus or minus.

Still, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers approved a resolution Tuesday asking Benson to appoint a monitor to oversee the counting of absentee ballots in Detroit's general election. The resolution also called for Benson, a Detroit resident, to investigate "the training and processes used by the City of Detroit" in the primary election.

During the Board of State Canvassers meeting, Michigan elections director Jonathan Brater said the state needed to gather more information about what happened in Detroit in the primary and appeared to push back against using the term "investigation."

But Brater, who was appointed by Benson in November 2019, labeled the 72% out-of-balance total for absentee voting precincts a "high percentage."

Two of the problems in the city appeared to be election workers not properly reporting absentee ballots when they were received and ballots that came in on Election Day not being marked correctly by precinct in poll books, he said.

The state will work with Detroit and Wayne County to "drill down on exactly what the cause of these issues was and what we need to do to prevent them for November," Brater said.

Republican state board member Aaron Van Langevelde said what happened in Detroit was "very troubling" and "unacceptable."

"A repeat performance is going to seriously undermine the public's confidence in the general election," he said.

Board Chairwoman Jeannette Bradshaw, a Democrat, added the situation was "very alarming" and "disheartening."