Primary ballot snafus arise in Detroit

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News

Balloting problems came to light in Detroit on Wednesday, one day after U.S. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pulled off a shocking upset of front-runner Hillary Clinton in the Michigan Democratic primary.

Wayne County Board of Canvassers officials discovered that a handful of Detroit precincts registered zero votes during balloting. Memory cards for three precincts showed no votes cast, while five absentee ballot precincts were uploaded Wednesday as zero, acknowledged Daniel Baxter, director of Detroit elections.

Canvassers will have to review the ballots in those precincts, but Baxter said they’re unlikely to change the results. Sanders won the statewide contest by 18,350 votes — 595,073 to 576,723 — and the precincts at issue had about 1,500 votes, Baxter said. Another estimate at the canvassers meeting put the tally at closer to 5,000 voters.

“This will have no effect on the outcome,” Baxter said.

Clinton, a former secretary of state, carried Detroit 73 percent to 26 percent, taking 89,900 of the 122,000 ballots cast. Turnout in the city was about 25.5 percent, a big uptick from 2012, but below the 34.5 percent participation statewide.

Pundits nationwide are attributing Sanders’ upset to his relatively strong showing among African-Americans in Michigan, capturing about a third of their votes. In Tuesday’s other primary in Mississippi, exit polls showed Clinton beating Sanders among African-Americans by a 7 to 1 margin.

The city had 490 precincts overall, and problems weren’t limited to missing results.

A report to the canvassers indicated the city had 11 missing poll book envelopes (registries signed by voters), while other envelopes containing results were torn or unsealed.

Baxter said two of the three precincts with zero votes had four registered voters, so the computerized results are plausible. Another had a corrupted memory card, while it’s unclear why the absentee precincts came back the way they did.

The problems appear to be unique to Detroit. Countywide, there were no issues and precincts are reporting at 100 percent, said Jina Sawani, a spokeswoman for Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett.

Chris Thomas, the state’s director of elections, said Michigan officials are aware of the problems and advising canvassers. Among other issues, the absentee ballots included two separate congressional districts, which will complicate awarding delegates in the primary.

He said the problems happen “on occasion” because of older voting systems. He plans to testify in a budget hearing Thursday for $55 million in new ballot systems statewide.

Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, said in an email the Detroit problems illustrate that posted results aren’t final.

“This sort of situation is why we remind people that all results on election night are unofficial until the canvassing process is complete,” Woodhams said.

Twitter: @joeltkurth