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Clerk: Some Genesee voters turned away from polls

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Voters in Flint and several other Genesee County communities were improperly turned away from the polls Tuesday after their local precincts ran out of Democratic primary ballots, according to the county clerk.

“They called our office and we told them to get back in there and get back in line and don’t leave,” County Clerk John Gleason said Wednesday. “One voter told us there was a two-hour wait while they were getting new ballots.

“There’s an indication that voters may have gotten impatient. There’s no way to quantify the statement but I’m sure people got mad and left.”

It remained unclear Wednesday morning how many of the county’s 220 precincts ran out of ballots or how many potential voters left without participating, Gleason said. But all municipalities should have been more prepared after they were warned weeks ago of the expected high turnout via an email from the state’s Bureau of Elections, he added.

“They were tracking absentee votes and every municipal clerk was given a heads up that it was an usually high absentee vote,” Gleason said. “Everyone was on alert that it was trending very high. I can say unequivocally that (some municipalities) were not prepared. A couple precincts ran out (of ballots) by mid-day.”

Local municipal clerks’ offices are responsible for ordering and supplying precincts with ballots, Gleason said. If precinct workers notice an upcoming shortage, by law they are allowed to request more from the local clerk, use spare absentee ballots, and/or make photocopies of the remaining ballots.

Photocopied ballots must be hand-counted at the end of the night, Gleason said. In precincts where voters were turned away, apparently none of these solutions were enacted, he said.

“There were early responses that there was going to be a shortage but the response was tardy,” Gleason said of local precincts that turned away voters.

Genesee County wasn’t the only area overwhelmed by high turnout. There were reports of precincts in Redford Township also running out of ballots, including precinct 25 at Vandenberg School.

“It was just astronomical demand,” precinct chairman Jack Zatirka said. “It’s a good problem but people aren’t always patient with that.”

The precinct began the day with 300 ballots, then added another 200 as voters cast ballots throughout the day. By 6:50 p.m., the precinct ran out of ballots for 30 minutes. People were lined up, spilling outside the gymnasium and into a parking lot, Zatirka said. By day’s end, 700 had voted.

The polling station stayed open until 9 p.m. — an hour after polls were to close.

Redford and Flint city officials did not immediately return calls for comment.

The Genesee County clerk on Wednesday said the ballot shortage in Flint carried a bright side: It was caused by a “fabulous” turnout following national attention to the city’s water crisis.

“I’m very proud that people took the time to vote. I said (turnout) was going to be high because of the national focus on Flint,” Gleason said. “We actually had campaign offices for the two leading (Democratic) candidates in Flint.”

Though the lack of ballots at some precincts caused an “inconvenience” to voters, Gleason said he wants to celebrate the citizen engagement.

“It was democracy and we think it’s great that people engaged in their democratic right,” he said. “I think we’ve got to emphasize the positive. I’m tickled to death about how the turnout went.

“I’ll tell you what: I’ll take an overcrowding every election.”

HFournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

@HollyPFournier