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Michigan board requires Benson to oversee Detroit's fall election

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Board of State Canvassers is requiring Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to exercise her oversight powers this November in Detroit after widespread problems counting ballots in the city's primary and ahead of a pivotal presidential election.

But Benson, a Democrat from Detroit, said in a Monday interview that her efforts wouldn't focus on just the state's largest city. The Secretary of State's office is going to do a "deep dive" in the coming days to identify additional ways to support multiple cities across Michigan as they prepare for a surge of absentee voting this fall, she said.

"I am confident that we’re going to have record turnout this fall and the results of our elections are going to be accurate,” Benson said.

Maurice Brown, 54, of Detroit, votes in precinct \232 at Greater Emmanuel Institutional church this morning during primary voting in Detroit, Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

About 72% of the absentee voting precincts in Detroit's primary election had ballot totals that didn't match the number of ballots reported in poll books. This situation would likely mean  — under state law — those precincts couldn't be recounted in a close race, which is driving concerns among officials for the general election when the eyes of the nation could be on Michigan.

President Donald Trump won the state by 10,704 votes in 2016, his smallest margin of victory nationwide. Former First Lady Michelle Obama said at last week's Democratic convention that it averaged to two votes per precinct in Michigan. 

"I don’t really care what the issue is," said Julie Matuzak, a Democratic member of the Board of State Canvassers. "I care that this not happen in November.”

On Monday morning, the board of two Democrats and two Republicans unanimously certified statewide election results for the Aug. 4 primary but included language in the certification that seeks to ensure that Benson gets further involved in supervising what happens with the general election in the state's largest city.

The board approved a requirement that Benson exercise "supervisory control" over the November election in Detroit. State law already provides the secretary of state supervisory control over local election officials, and it's unclear what specific changes in the administration of the election will occur.

"I don't think we're in the position to add the detail right now," said Norm Shinkle, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers.

Matuzak, who previously called the situation in the primary "appalling," said she wanted regular reports on what's happening in Detroit ahead of the general election. And Shinkle said he wanted to see a list of requirements from the Secretary of State's Office for the state, Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey and election workers in the city to meet "if Detroit's going to run their own election."

"Otherwise, the secretary of state walks in and runs it," Shinkle said.

Winfrey has connected problems in the primary to election workers who were on the job for more than 20 hours and to a record surge of absentee ballots that they couldn't begin counting until Election Day.

In the Monday interview, Benson reiterated her calls for the Republican-controlled state Legislature to allow election workers to begin processing absentee ballots — getting them ready to be counted — before Election Day to help deal with an onslaught of mail-in voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it's not the entire issue in Detroit, it's a "significant piece of the challenge that occurred," she said.

"This is in many ways a reflection of the potential for human error that overworked and stressed election workers can succumb to when you have the time crunch we've been warning about for nearly a year and a half," Benson said.

Some Republican lawmakers have opposed the proposed change because of concerns that it could lead to ballots being counted before voting is over, potentially giving one side an advantage.

Jonathan Brater, the state's elections director, said it isn't logistically possible for the state to run the election in Detroit but added that there are things that need to be done "much better" in the city.

For the primary, poll books weren't updated as absentee ballots came in, some absentee ballots were allocated to the wrong precincts and ballots were placed in incorrect containers, Brater said.

"We are going to be taking a more active role, both in the recruitment and the training of election inspectors," he added.

About 72% of the 503 absentee voting precincts in Detroit's primary elections had absentee ballot totals that didn't match the number of ballots reported in poll books.

Overall — for absentee voting and Election Day precincts — 46% of Detroit's precincts had ballot totals that were out of balance for the Aug. 4 primary without provided explanations from election workers, meaning they likely couldn't be recounted under state law. The problems spurred frustration and questions from election officials at both the county and state level.

Asked if it would be a failure if Detroit repeated the 46% mismatch rate in November, Benson said her goal is to ensure there is "complete security of the process."

"I am focused on having successful elections in November," she added. "And to me, success would be defined by an accurate count of all of the ballots that are cast."

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers approved a resolution last week, asking the Secretary of State's Office to investigate the "training and processes" used in Detroit's primary election. The resolution asked the office to provide a monitor to "supervise the training and administration" of absentee voter counting boards in Detroit for the general election.

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.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, 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.

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.

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. 

Monday morning's meeting of the Board of State Canvassers was a continuation of a meeting that happened on Friday, when technological problems interrupted and forced officials to schedule a new meeting.

During the Friday meeting, all four members of the board voiced frustration with the results of Detroit's primary. Republican state board member Aaron Van Langevelde said the situation was "very troubling" and "unacceptable."

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

cmauger@detroitnews.com