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Clerks urge election changes during boisterous legislative inquiry

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — In a Thursday meeting punctuated by outbursts from attendees, a wheelbarrow full of letters and repeated calls to order, two county clerks recommended a raft of election changes during the first testimony taken in a legislative inquiry into the Nov. 3 election. 

The three-hour joint oversight committee hearing was the first to take testimony on Michigan's Nov. 3 election, where unproven allegations of election fraud and ballot irregularities prompted Michigan lawmakers to subpoena voting-related records from the state to examine the issues. 

Some attendees seeking to "Stop the Steal" attended the meeting, grumbling about some responses and laughing when witnesses said dead voters did not vote in Michigan. 

Democratic lawmakers questioned the value of the hearing. Democratic Rep. Cynthia Johnson of Detroit yelled at the end of the meeting when she didn't get a question in, and criticized the GOP-led Legislature for holding such a meeting during a pandemic. She was gaveled down by Republican Sen. Ed McBroom of Vulcan.

"We have chosen to have a committee meeting on something that is already a done deal. Come on," Johnson said. 

The three-hour joint oversight committee hearing was the first to take testimony on Michigan's Nov. 3 election, where unproven allegations of election fraud and ballot irregularities prompted Michigan lawmakers to subpoena voting-related records from the state to examine the issues.

At the end of the meeting, a woman in the audience was escorted out of the room by security after she wheeled a wheelbarrow full of letters from constituents through chairs and up to lawmakers.

Kent County Clerk Lisa Posthumus Lyons, a Republican, told lawmakers Michigan's election processes are secure, noting the state's decentralized system spread responsibilities among 1,600 jurisdictions as the "first firewall" against widespread fraud. The state also uses paper ballots that act as back up to the electronic system, signature checks to ensure an absentee voter's identity, a canvassing process that ensures each county's vote count and post election audits.

"We have a really secure system in place when we follow the law and operate transparently," Posthumus Lyons said. "It's important to address issues head on because … our whole system is reliant on the public trust in the process.”

Posthumus Lyons differentiated between security, ensured through Michigan's system of checks and balances, and integrity, determined by the actions taken by election officials.

"I believe in the security of our elections, but I also believe we can improve upon the area of integrity," said Posthumus Lyons, a former lawmaker and running mate of 2018 GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette.

Lieutenant governor candidate Lisa Posthumus Lyons speaks during an event at Kent County Republican Headquarters in Grand Rapids Wednesday.

The integrity of the elections could be improved by legislation requiring a uniform training of poll challengers, some sort of breaks in absentee vote counting to allow workers to recharge, uniform policies or training on ballot signature verification, a prohibition on the unsolicited distribution of absentee ballot applications and access to the Qualified Voter File for county clerks.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat, joined Posthumus Lyons in calling for access to the voter file for county clerks so they could more easily pull dead people off the lists. That access usually is reserved for local municipal clerks and some third party organizations.

She also advocated for some sort of additional training or repercussions for clerks who repeatedly fail to balance a large majority of their voting precincts or absentee counting boards. Byrum also called for more local funding for election security and more time to prepare ballots and process them. 

But she rejected claims that Michigan's election wasn't secure and argued that President Donald Trump had needlessly stoked fears of election malfeasance. She said his focus on Detroit in particular amounted to "racism."

"People are really believing the conspiracy theories, and they’re not open to truth and they’re not allowing the facts to get into the way of their conspiracy thoughts," Byrum said.

State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, was optimistic about potential improvements to Michigan's voting system after hearing testimony from Byrum and Posthumus Lyons. 

"I think we can find bipartisan solutions to restore confidence in our state's elections," Hall said in a statement.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum

Both Byrum and Posthumus Lyons said they had unbalanced precincts in their jurisdictions, but they fell far short of Detroit, where 70% of the city's absentee counting boards had unexplained imbalances. 

In Ingham County, 6% of the county's in-person precincts and absentee counting boards were out of balance and unexplained. In Kent County, 9% of the county's in-person precincts and absentee counting boards were out of balance and unexplained. Both clerks said the incidence should be zero.

Wayne County, and Detroit in particular, deal with a much higher volume of ballots than other jurisdictions, perhaps prompting some of the problems there, Byrum said. 

Still, she said there should be some kind of controls for clerks who continually have a large number of precincts in which the pollbooks don't match the number of ballots processed.

"When it comes to frequent fliers, I think there needs to be additional training and some type of response," she said.

Posthumus Lyons said Kent County rejected a total of 142 ballots for mismatched or missing signatures. Ingham County rejected a total of 60 for the same reasons, Byrum said. 

The state's routine audits are important backstops to accuracy and election performance across the state, Posthumus Lyons said. But she noted it was important to conduct them after the certification of results. 

"If you did it before the canvass was complete, you're auditing unofficial results," she said. "Additionally if you audit before a recount has taken place, you're opening up very secure containers and things that are really important to protecting and preserving the security of the election before a potential recount takes place.

"The order in which this all occurs I think is important as well," Posthumus Lyons said.

Lawmakers also questioned Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy, a Republican whose error in October resulted in an inaccurate lead for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the Republican-heavy northern Michigan county. 

Guy said the issue stemmed from changes the county had to make to its ballot to accommodate changes in the Clear Lake and Mancelona jurisdictions. When the software company, Election Source, sent her a flash drive to upload the changes, the changes were applied to just the Clear Lake and Mancelona jurisdictions when all of the county's Dominion Voting Systems tabulators should have received the updated software. 

The oversight resulted in a mix-up as data was transferred from the tabulators to the county's main voting software, giving Biden an unexpected lead shortly after 4 a.m. and pushing the county and Dominion Voting Systems into the national spotlight, Guy said. 

"We looked at it. We were surprised. But 2020 has been a year like none other, and we honestly did not know what to expect," Guy said of the 4 a.m. results. 

The county pulled its results off its website later that day when people started contacting them. Election Source eventually identified the source of the error. But even if the company hadn't, the error would have been discovered during the canvassing process by comparing the physical tabulator tapes — a scroll of paper recording the results — to the unofficial results in the main software, Guy said. 

The software, which is used by 47 counties in Michigan and others throughout the United States, has been a focus Trump's campaign and Republican officials as a potential source of widespread fraud. Lawmakers plan to call Dominion Voting Systems to testify.

Hall criticized Guy for mixed messaging released at the height of the controversy that classified the problem as a "software glitch." Guy said she wasn't sure whether that was how her office initially phrased it. 

"There’s certainly some kind of problem going on in your office, and it would be good to seek additional training on how these machines work," Hall said. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com