What we know about Detroit’s absentee ballot processing errors
The Michigan Board of State Canvassers pushed for a state takeover of Detroit’s elections after the Wayne County Board of Canvassers identified a number of problems with processing absentee ballots cast by Detroit voters in the August primary.
In 363 out of the city’s 503 precincts — roughly 72% — the number of absentee ballots counted did not match the number recorded in the precinct’s poll book, a compilation of a given precinct’s registered voter records that should indicate the number of voters in a precinct who voted absentee. This was not the first time Detroit has drawn attention because of concerns over counting.
Some national conservative websites highlighted the problems in Detroit, writing “there was chaos while counting absentee ballots on primary election night,” and asking, “Are they math-challenged in Detroit?”
The Wayne County Board of Canvassers, which certifies the election results for Detroit and other jurisdictions in the county, recently passed a resolution asking the state to investigate what went wrong in Detroit.
“After 20 hours of working, was there a human error or was there an intentional mistake?” asked Monica Palmer, the Republican chairperson of the Wayne County board. “I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”
But Jonathan Kinloch, the vice chairperson, said the board “saw no evidence of individuals voting who were not supposed to.”
How were absentee votes counted on election day in Detroit?
Absentee ballots, just like in-person ballots, are tabulated at the precinct level. In the August primary, a majority of Detroit voters cast their vote absentee rather than in person.
The city created 134 absent-voter counting boards charged with processing and counting ballots for its 503 precincts, beginning on election day. Before any ballots are in the hands of the counting board, the clerk’s office is supposed to record the number of absentee ballot envelopes returned.
Upon receipt of a voter’s returned absentee ballot envelope, the clerk’s office updates that person’s voter record. The change is also supposed to be reflected in the precinct’s poll book, which shows the number of absentee ballots cast by voters in the precinct.
But these updates were not made consistently in Detroit. Failing to record absent voter ballot envelopes as they come in “starts you off on a rough foot to get an accurate count,” Palmer said.
When the absent voter counting boards gathered on election day at TCF Center, the city’s main convention hall, to begin processing and counting ballots, they may have been working off a precinct poll book that misreported the number of absentee ballots cast in a particular precinct. That’s one possible reason why the number of absentee ballots counted by the tabulation machine may not have matched the number of absentee ballots recorded in the precinct’s poll book. The Wayne County board also found ballots in the wrong precinct container, which also contributed to the errors.
Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey did not respond to an interview request.
Discrepancies do occur
After all the absentee ballots have been counted, three numbers should match: the number of absentee ballots recorded in the precinct’s poll book, the number of absentee ballots from a precinct tabulated in the counting machine and the number of counted ballots held in the precinct’s ballot container.
It is not uncommon for there to be discrepancies among these three numbers. A ballot may have been jammed in the machine, a ballot envelope may have lacked a signature, a spoiled ballot may have been accidentally tabulated or a voter may have spoiled his or her ballot and voted in person instead. There are a number of reasons that can explain the discrepancies, and they’re supposed to be recorded in the poll book.
The problem in Detroit was that its absent voter counting boards were unable to identify the source of the inconsistencies. Given the inaccuracies in the number of absentee votes recorded in the poll books and the fact that ballots from some precincts were placed in the wrong container, it was impossible to work backward and figure out why there was an imbalance.
Under Michigan election law, a precinct that is not in “balance” is disqualified from participating in a recount, and the election results originally reported by the precinct stand as final.
“It doesn’t make any sense, because if you’re trying to identify fraud, you want to get into that ballot container and start tabulating,” said Kinloch, the Wayne County board vice chairperson.
Palmer, the chairperson, said the chances for a recount following the November general election are high and she worries similar errors could occur in Detroit, disqualifying precincts from a recount. “That disenfranchises the voters,” she said.
Looking to November
While the Michigan Board of Canvassers has asked the state to run Detroit’s election this November, Jonathan Brater, the director of the Michigan Bureau of Elections, says that won’t happen. “Logistically, practically, it's not possible,” Brater said.
But the state is planning to play a more active role to help the city train and recruit absent-voter counting boards and ensure poll books are updated each time an absentee ballot is received by the clerk.
“For any type of error to occur in November would just be unimaginable — the type of focus it would bring down on Michigan, in particular Detroit,” Kinloch.
Palmer agreed: “We cannot go into November repeating what happened in the primary. It absolutely cannot happen.”
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Contact Clara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check.