New Michigan audit debunks dead voter theory in 2020 election

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A report released Friday by Michigan's Office of the Auditor General quashed a conspiracy theory that a significant number of fraudulent votes were cast on behalf of dead people in the state's 2020 presidential election.

The 67-page document examined election processes in the battleground state, generally finding them to be sufficient with some exceptions. Nothing in the document specifically called into question the results of Michigan's election, when Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump, but did criticize audits that occurred afterward.

The auditor general's office — whose leader, Doug Ringler was appointed by the Republican-controlled Legislature — compared state voting records with public health records, finding 1,616 votes, or 0.03% of the total ballots, were attributed to people who were deceased as of Election Day.

President Donald Trump holds up papers as he speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, April 20, 2020, in Washington.

In the wide majority of the cases, the problem votes were absentee ballots cast by someone who died in the final days before the election, according to the auditors' report. That indicates the people were alive when they sent in their ballots ahead of the election but passed away before Election Day.

Ballots of voters who have died before Election Day are supposed to be rejected in Michigan, even if the voter cast an absentee ballot and then died before Election Day, according to the Secretary of State's office.

In 20 instances in the presidential election, a person who cast a ballot had died more than 40 days before the election, according to the new report.

Likewise, the report found that 99.99% of the voters examined were within acceptable age parameters and 99.99% of the votes cast were not identified as a duplicate vote.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said the report affirmed "Michigan’s 2020 election was secure and the outcome accurately reflects the will of the voters."

"The performance of Michigan’s clerks in the 2020 election and the months that followed was outstanding, especially when we take into consideration the national, coordinated and shameful effort to overturn the legitimate outcome of the election and undermine the clerks themselves," Benson said.

But Republican lawmakers contended the report pointed to weaknesses in state election policies that need to be addressed.

"Every month, the state is required by law to check the death rolls to make sure people are being removed," said state Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall. "The audit showed that clearly was not being done."

Trump lost Michigan's 2020 election to Biden by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points. Trump and some of his supporters have maintained unproven claims that widespread fraud cost him the battleground state. However, a series of court rulings and an investigation by the GOP-controlled state Senate Oversight Committee have upheld the result.

Trump himself has previously touted the allegation that dead people voted in Michigan's election. In a Jan. 2, 2021, call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Trump said a "tremendous number of dead people" voted in Michigan.

"I think ... it was 18,000," said Trump, according to a recording of the call obtained by CNN.

Likewise, an unsuccessful lawsuit from a group of Michigan Republicans that sought to overturn Michigan's election cited "accepting and counting ballots from deceased voters" as one of its arguments.

The Office of the Auditor General examined eight elections over 2019 and 2020, tallying 2,775 votes cast by electors who died prior to Election Day. The office determined 2,765 (99.6%) of the votes were cast via absentee ballot.

"Finally, we noted these 2,775 votes cast represented 0.02% of the 11,725,897 votes cast in the eight elections subject to this review," the auditors' report said.

The office also determined 2,734 of the problem votes (98.5%) were cast by electors who died within 40 days of the elections.

An election worker is less likely on Election Day to identify and reject a ballot of a person with a date of death close to an election because of delays with death certificates and removal from the state's qualified voter file, the report said.

The auditors' report suggested lawmakers should determine whether to set a specific date election workers must match voting records with death records and whether a voter who dies after that date should have their ballot counted.

The state auditors also visited 26 randomly selected jurisdictions to review 2019 and 2020 election records and surveyed 1,595 local election officials. The office's review of absentee ballot records "did not identify any significant noncompliance," according to the new report.

In addition, the office examined the state's process for auditing election results, finding 99.9% of the ballots tabulated by voting equipment and examined in the review agreed with Bureau of Elections (BOE) or county-level hand counts.

However, the auditor's office said the bureau — which is in the Secretary of State's office — needs to improve its oversight and reporting of post-election audits assigned to county clerks "to help ensure the accuracy and integrity of election records and information provided to the public."

For 40 of 239 completed post-election audits for the 2020 vote, county clerks did not hand count the U.S. Senate race ballots, as directed, according to the report.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township defeated Republican challenger John James of Farmington Hills 49.9%-48.2% or by 92,335 votes.

County clerks did not complete eight audits and did not provide results for 11 audits until after the report issuance date.

"Because of the issues noted, BOE's report on the November 2020 election included information that was not accurate or complete," the report added.

The Secretary of State's office in February 2021 touted the audit process as affirming the presidential election outcome.

In a response to the new report, the Bureau of Elections said it will take steps to improve oversight and reporting of post-election audits assigned to county clerks.

The audit report also found the Bureau of Elections did not ensure county clerks and their staff received post-election audit training and were appropriately certified to conduct post-election audits. In its response, the bureau said it has since improved its post-election audit training and certification.

Required post-election audit training was not completed by about 52% of county clerks and 59% of other county election officials who had not viewed relevant post-election audit training webinars or videos, according to the auditor general's report.

Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee, plans to hold a hearing on the report. She labeled the findings on the post-election audits "concerning."

"I have already reached out to the Secretary of State to plan a hearing about post-election audits," Bollin said. "We must address these issues."

A coalition of voting rights organizations said the new report confirmed the 2020 election was fair and accurate. The groups were All Voting is Local Michigan, Michigan League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, Michigan Voices and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

"Our elected officials should focus on building on these successes, including implementing pre-processing of absentee ballots as recommended by the Auditor General," the coalition's statement said.