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'This can't go on': Detroit primary ballots went unchecked, GOP poll challengers say

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Election workers in Detroit's primary improperly altered some votes and counted thousands of absentee ballots without checks against voter lists, say GOP poll challengers who contend Michigan's largest city isn't ready for November's election.

Detroit, where problems counting ballots have been in the spotlight for at least 15 years, is quickly becoming a key front in the political fight over election integrity. Republicans are signing affidavits about problems they saw in the Aug. 4 primary, while Democratic state officials are taking steps they hope will improve ballot handling in the general election.

Precinct 282 poll workers Johnnie Wilford, right, and Stan Edwards register Detroit voters at Calvary Presbyterian Church  on Tuesday, Aug.  4, 2020.

About 25 Michigan Republicans monitored the counting of absentee ballots in the basement of the TCF Center in Detroit for the Aug. 4 primary. They reported a variety of missteps that — if accurate — would violate policies in state manuals, ranging from cellphones being used by workers to votes being counted without lists of voters on hand to check the ballots against, according to interviews with eight poll challengers and signed affidavits from five.

A handful of the GOP poll challengers contended that they saw election workers make digital changes to disregard lone Republican votes on ballots featuring mostly Democratic votes in a bid to make the ballots legally countable in the partisan primary, where voters are not allowed to cross over.

Their accounts come after Wayne County election officials revealed that 72% of Detroit's 503 absentee voting precincts reported ballot totals that didn't match the totals of voters tracked in poll books, the official lists of voters participating in the election. The out-of-balance totals, which could have resulted from not checking ballots against the voter lists, would mean that the precincts couldn't be recounted in a close race under state law.

GOP poll challenger Cliff Frost, 73, of Warren said he was "incredulous" to see ballots sent to tabulators without first being checked against poll books as election workers are supposed to do in accordance with state manuals.

Frost said election workers told him: "We’re saving the envelopes, and we’re going to check them later." But he questioned what would happen if the workers found a problem after the votes had already been counted.

An election worker hands an absentee ballot to a voter at a satellite voting location on the campus of Wayne County Community College NW district, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Detroit.

With a surge of absentee voting expected this fall, the Nov. 3 election is going to be "a mess" in Detroit, predicted Matt Harris, 41, of Commerce Township, another Republican poll watcher.

"They have September and October, two months," Harris said of the time remaining before the election. "How can they turn it around that fast?”

Election officials in Michigan have emphasized the problems in Detroit's primary election weren't examples of fraud and don't call into question the integrity of the results.

Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey, whose office didn't respond to multiple requests for comment, has tied the problems to increases in absentee voting, veteran election workers not showing up during the COVID-19 pandemic and other workers being on the job for more than 20 hours.

There are security precautions for absentee ballots, such as checking signatures on them, that can be done before Election Day, said Aghogho Edevbie, Michigan director for the voting rights group All Voting Is Local. While Edevbie said he's concerned about the processes used in Detroit's primary, he said he doesn't think something nefarious went on.

"The essential integrity of the process was not breached," he said.

The GOP allegations come as the eyes of the nation could be on Detroit this fall amid record absentee voting and criticism from President Donald Trump about mail-in voting. Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, his closest margin of victory nationally.

Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, referenced the Republican poll challengers during an interview with TV show "The Circus" last month in which she advised Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic candidate, not to concede the election. She described the GOP challengers as "lawyers" and said a local reporter was told their presence was a "dry run" for November.

"Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances because I think this is going to drag out and, eventually, I do believe he will win if we don’t give an inch and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is," Clinton said.

Skipping ballot books

In a basement room beneath the TCF convention center, hundreds of election workers met in the morning hours of the Aug. 4 primary to begin counting Detroit's absentee ballots.

Tables were set up in squares for each of the more than 130 county boards that would handle the city's 503 absentee voting precincts. Robert Brines, 69, of White Lake, one of the GOP poll challengers, described it as a "monster operation."

The election workers were on the job until about 5 a.m. Aug. 5, the day after the primary. Of the eight Republicans who monitored the work and were interviewed by The Detroit News, none stayed at TCF Center longer than Bob Cushman, a 70-year-old General Motors retiree from South Lyon.

An affidavit signed by Bob Cushman describes what he saw while serving as a poll challenger at Detroit's primary election at the TCF Center on Aug. 4, 2020.

Cushman arrived at the TCF Center at 6:50 a.m. Aug. 4 and didn't leave until 5:10 a.m. Aug. 5, according to an affidavit he signed later. While at the facility, he took five pages of notes, which documented election workers not checking absentee ballots against poll books, a practice that is meant to help keep ballot and voter totals in balance.

At about 2 a.m. on Aug 5, a "soft male voice" came over the microphone system in the center and "instructed everyone to stop what they are doing, open every envelope, separate the ballots and place them in the trays to go to the tabulators," according to Cushman's affidavit. Another announcement repeated the instruction a few moments later, he said.

"About 20 minutes after the announcements, I walked around the TCF Center and noted that there were no more comparisons being made to the poll books at any of the tables that I observed," Cushman said in his affidavit. "I continued to make rounds of the floor with the same observations."

The retiree estimates thousands of absentee ballots were sent to tabulators without being checked against voter lists after the 2 a.m. announcement in an effort to get results more quickly.

"This was just a primary," he said. "There’s going to be a lot more votes, many, many more votes in the general election."

Most other GOP poll challengers said they saw absentee ballots being sent to tabulators without poll book checks earlier on Aug. 4 when counting boards didn't yet have their poll books on site.

Some of the counting boards, which can handle counts for multiple precincts, didn't have poll books until 3 p.m., according to the GOP poll challengers.

"The supervisors were called and seemed shocked, but the workers already admitted that they were told to process the ballots, even without a poll book," said an affidavit from GOP poll challenger Janice Brines of Oxford.

A portion of an affidavit by Janice Brines describes what she saw at the TCF Center where absentee ballots were counted for Detroit's primary on Aug. 4, 2020.

The first steps for counting absentee ballots should involve checking the voter's name in the poll book or qualified absentee voter list, according to Michigan's official manual for absentee voter counting boards. It's an accounting measure that is supposed to help election workers track who's voted and ensure that the number of ballots counted in a specific precinct matches the number of voters.

"You need your poll book. That’s how you begin," said Chris Thomas, who served as Michigan's election director for more than 30 years and is advising Detroit elections operations this fall. "That tells you how many ballots are supposed to be there."

But Detroit was short dozens of election workers for the primary, according to a variety of sources, including Evelyn Archer of Oxford, another Republican poll challenger. Some workers didn't show up. Others left early.

"This can’t go on,” Archer said of the primary problems. “This is not representing the true vote.”

Chris Thomas

'Far cry' from disaster?

On Wednesday, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the state's top election official, and Detroit Clerk Winfrey said they would partner to administer the election in Detroit this fall.

The effort will include recruiting and training at least 6,000 election workers and revising protocols for ballot counting and sorting to "reduce the potential for error," according to a press release.

New technology played a role in the problems in Detroit's primary, said Thomas, now a special adviser on Detroit's upcoming election. But under his analysis of precinct results, in which some precincts were allocated more votes than expected and others were allocated fewer, the citywide totals left only about 21 votes unaccounted for, he said earlier this week in an interview. More than 121,200 ballots were cast.

"That’s a far cry from major disaster," Thomas said.

Asked how concerned voters should be about Detroit's situation this fall, he answered clerks across Michigan are making adjustments to deal with record absentee ballots.

Detroit's previous high for absentee votes in an election was about 57,000, Thomas said. In the Aug. 4 primary, the city had about 80,000 absentee ballots cast, he said. It reflects about a 40% jump.

More will be cast in the upcoming general election during a pandemic and after voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing no-reason absentee voting in 2018.

“Every clerk is dealing with a pandemic situation," Thomas said. "There’s concern across the board in terms of them having the people and resources they need to get the job done. Detroit is no different."

Current Michigan elections director Jonathan Brater told the Michigan Board of State Canvassers on Wednesday that efforts in Detroit will focus on improving record-keeping and the accuracy of poll books.

"Because of the issues with recording ballots in the poll books along with the fact that ballots were in some cases put in the wrong containers, that made it very difficult for the city and the county to balance things out in the time they had available," Brater said.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, left, and Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, talks about the upcoming elections and early absentee voting earlier this year.

Recount impact looms

More than a quarter of Detroit's absentee voting precincts, or 131 of 503 precincts, were off by plus or minus one ballot without an explanation for Aug. 4 primary when comparing poll books to ballot totals, according to information presented to the Wayne County Board of Canvassers.

Another 85 absentee precincts were off by two ballots without an explanation, 48 were off by three ballots, 26 off by four ballots and 73 off by five ballots. In Michigan, precincts with tallies that are off without explanations can't be recounted.

When totals are out of balance and votes can't be recounted, people will question what actually happened, said state Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, a former secretary of state.

"Something has to be done. It’s not just one city. This happens in a number of places," Johnson said.

Ruth Johnson

But the problems aren't new in Detroit. In 2016, election officials there couldn’t reconcile vote totals for 59% of precincts — combined Election Day and absentee precincts. For the Aug. 4 primary 46% of the total precincts couldn't be reconciled.

The poll book checks weren't the only problems, according to Republican challengers.

Multiple poll observers said they saw Detroit election workers digitally clear improper cross-over votes in the Democratic primary that should have made partisan portions of the ballots invalid. "Three or four times" Robert Brines said he saw election workers remove Democratic primary voters' choice of Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James.

"Some of the operators and observers were correcting an overvote when the ballot should be voided by the system software," an affidavit signed by Robert Brines said.

An affidavit describes what William Lethemon says he saw while working as a poll challenger for Detroit's primary election on Aug. 4, 2020.

Watching the counters

Michigan Republicans plan to closely monitor Detroit's vote-counting in November as President Donald Trump seeks reelection in a state he won by 10,704 votes in 2016.

Trump has argued, without evidence, that the efforts to expand absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic "will be the most rigged election in our nation's history." In July, he refused to commit to accepting the results of the election in advance of Nov. 3 — similar to what he did in 2016.

Detroit is Michigan's largest city in the state's largest county, a traditional Democratic stronghold that this fall will likely produce the most Democratic votes among all Michigan counties. In 2016, Detroit supplied 10% of Clinton's statewide vote total, while Wayne County provided about 23%.

Many of the 25 Republican volunteer primary poll challengers at the TCF Center said they plan to be back Nov. 3.

"The integrity of the vote is at stake in my opinion," said Frost, the 73-year-old from Warren.

Like other Republicans, Frost said he wants to see more poll challengers in Detroit — GOP and Democrats. The Democrats had two lawyers at the TCF Center for the primary, according to the Republicans.

"I’m here to watch you," Cushman said one of the Democratic lawyers told him.

Rosanne Ponkowski, 63, of West Bloomfield said she hopes more Democratic poll challengers are active in November, adding election integrity is the No. 1 priority.

"It’s in their interest to make sure the ballots are handled correctly. Period," Ponkowski said.